The View From Here

People Who Nod Instead of Flinch

by Dave Ferry, OCDLA President

From the August-September-October 2016 issue of The Oregon Defense Attorney.

I have decided, because it seems so en vogue these days, to use my “VIEW FROM HERE” column to propose yet another, somewhat rhetorical, and probably endless war. I want a war on unfair procedure and unjust systems. This is not a war involving foreign terrorists, evil dictatorships, or even drug lords and violent henchmen. It is a war that we fight right here, every day. A war that, when I stop and think about it, already has been going on as long as I can remember. So I’m not proposing anything new at all, I’m just using the lingo. But bear with me.

As defense, dependency and delinquency professionals, we constantly engage in battle with the government’s minions, er, I mean attorneys. We battle for fair procedures, reasonable rules, justice, and sometimes just for common sense. We battle for second chances for people who have never seen what one looks like, and for people who are on chance seven. We battle over how much of our clients’ lives they will get to live freely, who gets to keep and raise their own children, and which children get to go to school instead of be locked away. Admittedly, some of our clients shouldn’t be allowed to live in our free society. Some shouldn’t be allowed near any child, even their own. And some children might be bad seeds, incorrigible from an early age (though opinions differ on how often that actually happens). But which of our clients does not deserve a fair process to make sure that any of those things are true before they are written off, locked away, and ignored?

When we talk to our friends and neighbors, even members of our own families, sometimes they flinch at what we do. They wonder how we can do it, how we can represent “those people.” But we know that “those people” aren’t always so different from the ones who are doing the flinching. We know that it’s too easy to pretend otherwise, too easy to just slap on a label. Once we affix the “criminal” or “delinquent” or “addict” label, most folks stop worrying about it. Haven’t you heard something like, “I let the system handle it, that’s what the system is for,” and “this is America, we have the best system in the world”? But we know, far too well, how imperfect our system can be.

We know that, as surely as a victim is hurt by a thief, robber, or assaulter, the over-charged “criminal” can be devastated by the system. Our clients can lose everything—all their plans, hopes, dreams, and freedoms—because an officer convinces a prosecutor, who convinces a judge and jury, that they are guilty and incorrigible? We know that one or both of those things are often wrong.

The juvenile practitioners among us see similar things. They see that both lazy and hard-working single parents can make mistakes. Just like kids regularly do. And they deal with a system that has extraordinary authority to make those mistakes cost a mom her children, or a child his future.

So, we know that there needs to be people who pay attention. There needs to be people making sure that it isn’t too easy to throw people away, give up on children, or give up on parents. People making sure that we are giving “those people” the same chances to prove a mistake has been made, or a second chance could work, that we would want in the same circumstances.

Which brings me to the part of this essay where I extoll the virtues of our professional organization—the collective umbrella connecting us with the other people fighting the same sorts of battles—OCDLA. One of the things I love most about OCDLA: when I go to a conference, I am surrounded by people who understand everything I just wrote. People who nod instead of flinch. People who commiserate and sympathize with me, and with my clients, not just with the victims (who deserve sympathy, surely, but generally have an easier time getting it). It is comforting and comfortable. It is also sustaining, inspiring, and supporting. Things I need to keep fighting battles that need fighting.

OCDLA also helps me fight better. It arms me with information and skills. It connects me with others who can help: people with motions I can use, arguments I can make, and ideas I haven’t thought of yet. It introduces me to new ways to communicate my message, to open closed minds enough to consider innocence, or the possibility of rehabilitation—to get better results.

As I am engaging in my constant series of battles, I know that OCDLA is supporting the whole war. It also allows us to present a collective voice that facilitates a broader focus on the whole war. It permits us to lobby for important procedures and rules in the legislature, and to push back against proposals to remove procedural protections, streamline convictions and lengthen sentences. Sometimes we are the only counterpoint to the powerful voice of the district attorneys association, and to those leaders selling tough-on-crime agendas to the public because easy answers get votes.

Those are some of the reasons I believe in OCDLA. Reasons that led me to serve you as its president, and to feel very honored to do so. Those are reasons why I fervently hope to lead OCDLA to strive for progress in this war, this war for a more fair system. And to do that at all well, I need…you.

I need the help of everyone reading these words, everyone who is OCDLA. I need you to tell me when you see a need for a unifying voice. I need you to share when you achieve a victory that others might replicate, or sustain a defeat that others might avoid. I need you to identify the places where we need more efforts, the people we are failing to serve, and the ways that we can serve better. I need you to send word when you perceive that we are making a misstep. I need you to identify the flaws in the laws that we should seek to repair, and the areas where we can push for new rules that will advance this war for all of us. I need to know what you are seeing in your battles, so we can use them in the greater war. (Yes, I need a lot in order to be a good president. Fortunately, you are up to it).

This is not a war that will end anytime soon. It is a war of small victories and incremental progress, as well as unfortunate defeats and, when we do win, sometimes legislative “fixes.” It is a long game that requires patience and diligence. And it requires all of us. I thank you for letting me lead you in some small part of that effort. And I thank you for being OCDLA.