Balancing the Scales of Justice 

Brendon Woods, Alameda County's new public defender, is determined to raise the profile of his office and speak out on behalf of indigent defendants.

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Woods also secured a prestigious training grant for his staff from the Bronx Defenders, an organization that represents indigent criminal defendants in New York City. The grant will provide for an exchange of ideas between the two offices, staff exchanges for training visits, and will lay the groundwork for a transition from pure legal representation to a holistic advocacy model used by the Bronx Defenders that's geared toward getting clients services and job opportunities that take them out of the cycle of recidivism and poverty.

"I want us to focus on what happens after court," Woods said. "We're successful when we don't see our clients again. They need help finding housing. They often need drug treatment. They need employment — far more than they do education. Once someone is working and gainfully employed, it brings about a sense of self-worth and importance."

Woods also is establishing reforms that will affect the way public defenders interact with their clients, both in and out of the courtroom. Defense cases will be handled "vertically" — by one attorney — as opposed to the current practice of "horizontal" representation, in which different public defenders handle a case at different stages of court proceedings. Juvenile cases have already been overhauled to allow for vertical representation, which Woods believes will reduce the impression some clients have that they are being treated like just another number.

"There's the potential for clients to feel like they're going through an assembly line — one lawyer puts on the tires, one lawyer puts in the brakes, one lawyer puts in the upholstery — as opposed to one lawyer is taking care of me all the way through," he said.

Social workers will be brought in to assist clients in need as part of the county's realignment program, which shifts prison inmates from state to county supervision. Woods is also exploring possible diversion programs involving the offer of a job for participants as an enticement to not reoffend — though he concedes that this is a lofty goal. There are also plans to partner with the Alameda County Public Health Department and other service providers to connect defendants with support services.

Woods also is reorganizing the office to develop specialized units, much like those in the District Attorney's Office. Woods said it won't be a top-down reshuffling of assignments and personnel: He sent out a survey to his staff to find out which lawyers have specialized skills, interests, or backgrounds that may help with things like grant writing, coordinating with social workers, or interacting with the media — something his predecessor took pains to avoid.

One goal is to create a "homicide-plus" team of three or four attorneys who would handle up to eight homicides as well as other serious felonies. Woods also has plans for legislative and policy teams that would keep abreast of proposed laws and policies on the state and local level. District attorneys and police associations throughout California actively engage in lobbying in Sacramento, and Woods believes public defenders should also step up for their constituencies. "We need to be, as an office, more aware of legislation as it's being developed and how it's going to affect our clients," he said.

Alameda County is a diverse, sprawling entity in which communities have divergent needs, and the Public Defender's Office needs to have its finger on the pulse of the county, he added. The policy and legislative teams would fulfill that function, he said.

In a conversation about Woods' proposals to reform his office, Adachi laid out three key ways for transitioning toward a holistic model of representation and advocacy for defendants: First and foremost is providing top-notch legal representation and ensuring that the office has sufficient funding and staff. Second, that staff has to be well trained, motivated, and evaluated to keep their performance high. And Adachi's final key point is continuously engaging with the public. "You have to make sure the public understands what you do and why it's important," he said. "In Brendon's case, he's going to be a very good public face of the office. He sees that being the public defender is more than an office, it's being part of the community."

Despite the fact that Woods serves at the behest of the board of supervisors, he is nonetheless confident that he has its support. And he is determined to carry out his agenda and stand by his principles, even if it means clashing with others in county government and law enforcement.

"There's no reason why I should change my thoughts or philosophy or who I am because I'm sitting in this office," he said. "I'm just gonna be me, and whatever happens, happens."

Correction: The original version of this story should have stated that each lawyer in the Alameda County Public Defender's Office assigned to felony cases carries an average of 273 of them per year (not at a time), while attorneys responsible for misdemeanors oversee 353 cases annually (not at a time) on average.

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