by Lane Borg, OCDLA President
From the Nov-Dec 2013 issue of The Oregon Defense Attorney.
I recently traveled to Dayton, Ohio, for the formative meeting of a new organization: the National Association for Public Defense.
Doing the day-to-day work of criminal defense, it’s easy to ignore the fact that there is a leadership void at the national level for public defense advocacy. The National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) is supposed to be the organization with a public defense mandate. However, the Legal Aid side of things has become the predominant focus of NLADA. During the eight years of the Bush Administration and the economic crush of the great recession the poor have taken a beating in access to justice issues. Legal Aid is not constitutionally mandated and therefore they must lobby Congress, state legislatures and private foundations for their very survival. We need NLADA to keep doing great work – but we also need an organization to focus on public defense.
NACDL is a strong voice for criminal justice issues such as Brady, junk science, and eyewitness identification. These are topics that speak to criminal cases regardless of how the defendant got an attorney. It’s important work and NACDL speaks with authority. But our issue is Gideon and our amendment is the Sixth Amendment. A person needs access to competent and adequately resourced counsel and support staff before he or she can hope to address issues like forensic laboratory standards.
So from 22 states, 33 of us that work in leadership roles in public defense gathered to create a blueprint for a viable organization. We spent a lot of time talking about what brought us to this work and what our core values are for public defense.
In many ways this was the best part. I felt like I did when I went to my first couple of OCDLA events in the 1980s and realized I was part of something bigger. Folks from all over the country are doing this important work with dedication, zeal and love; and it’s inspiring. The director of a new public defender’s office in Birmingham, Ala., talked about how her office will be just blocks from the church where four black girls were murdered by a bomb set by the KKK. For her, that church is a tangible reminder of the connection between the racism of the past and the work her public defenders will do every day. For all of us, it was impossible not to hear the echoes of the past reverberating through the over-representation of minorities in the criminal justice system and the mass incarceration of African-Americans. It was a good reminder that public defense is a civil rights issue for us all.
Of course, the emotional and historical connections between public defenders are not enough to justify a national organization that will take funds and effort to maintain. For me, the most important justification is not just shared hope but shared ownership. We, everyone from the heads of organizations to our dedicated support staff, need to own our work. My experience is that most people who work in public defense (both the full time PDs and assigned counsel) are mission driven. The work is too hard and too weird to just be a paycheck.
But by “own it” I mean more than taking pride in the work. We need to take responsibility for determining standards of quality, measuring outcomes, and using that information to improve quality and outcomes. I believe that if we take the lead in self-examination, self-assessment, and self-improvement we will not just be the moral authority but the actual authority in the struggle for adequate resources.
Whether the struggle is for better pay, lower caseloads or both, we need to do the work to demonstrate why improvements are necessary rather than rely on anecdote and lore. For that, we need to work together – as many of us as we can, all across the nation.
Here in Oregon we are truly fortunate to have one of the premier state service organizations in the country. OCDLA, by many measures, is at the top of the heap. We provide comprehensive training, resources, lobbying and community building for our members. But all that means that we have much to share with our brothers and sisters who are doing this work in harder, and sometimes seemingly impossible, situations. Moreover, we should not be so complacent that we think we have nothing to learn from other states. Even over a weekend, I was able to see that there are innovative and exciting things happening all over the country. It goes back to where I started when I first went to a statewide OCDLA event – being part of something bigger than our individual selves is invigorating and inspiring. And it’s also pragmatic: fifty years on, the promise of Gideon is not fully realized and we are fighting every year to justify adequate resources to do this work.
We are also fortunate to have an independent Office of Public Defense Services advocating on behalf of all of us. Forward progress was made in the last year, but we must do more. I am committed to the fight for more resources for assigned counsel, consortia, and any professionals working within this system. However, we still need a nationwide organization like NAPD because, to borrow from our patriot forefathers, if we do not all stand together we will surely hang separately. Well maybe not actually “hang,” but we will continue to toil away in under resourced offices facing institutional barriers to fulfilling Gideon’s promise.
OCDLA Board President Lane Borg is director of the Metropolitan Public Defender in Portland. He serves on the Education and Legislative committees.