If you find yourself working in a job where it does not align with your personal values, then it probably isn't the right job for you. If you are considering criminal defense, then the issue is less about whether "defending criminals" aligns with your personal values, and more about identifying those personal values which you hold that align with the work in front of you.
The vast majority of criminal cases on which I have worked typically involve people who have just made a dumb mistake. They regret what they did, and they want to try and get their lives back on track. Having a criminal conviction on their record, and even worse, being confined in jail or prison, severely limits these peoples' ability to try and make something more of their lives. If they're having trouble with drugs, then getting into drug treatment might help them however.
It certainly does happen, however, that a criminal defendant will simply be unrepentant. In such cases you stick to the core values of the legal profession. Be a zealous advocate for your client. Take all the facts that are present in the case, never mischaracterize the facts, and present them in the way that best serves the client. While I was in trial practice class during law school, we were given a problem case involving domestic violence. In this hypothetical case the wife said her husband attacked her because he was drunk, and the husband said his wife attacked him because she was drunk and he was just defending himself (this is a very common real world scenario). Our professor asked us a very important question: "Is it impossible that the husband's version of events could be true?" The obvious answer is "no." Even if you think the defendant is a scum-bag, and even if you are pretty sure (s)he did something deplorable, the facts will usually fall in such a way that there is a perfectly legitimate argument pointing to their innocence, or at least to a lesser sentence than the prosecutor is seeking.
And therein we come back to the core value, be a zealous advocate for your client. Because you yourself can never really know for certain what happened, it becomes easier to step back, look at the facts objectively, and present them in the way that best serves your client. It doesn't matter what you yourself think is most likely, all that matters is what is possible. It is then for the jury to decide what is most likely, or more accurately, what they believe beyond a reasonable doubt.
This core value absolutely applies to prosecutors as much as it does to defendants. I believe those prosecutors with whom I have worked (in opposition) pursue their side for a couple of reasons. One, to protect victims, if there are any, whether past or future. And two, to make sure the defendant receives an appropriate sentence sufficient to convince them not to repeat any other offenses.
Hope this helps!
Kyle recommends the following next steps:
- Go to your local criminal courthouse, or call your local district attorney's office or public defender's office. Ask at any of these locations whether there are any trials which you can observe then or in the near future. All court proceedings are open to the public unless specific findings are made as to why they should be closed. Ask if you can speak to either of the attorneys or the judge. If you can, ask about different cases they've seen, and if they have had difficulties applying their personal values in those cases. Share with them your own experiences, and ask how they would apply the values of the legal profession to your problems.