Brendon Woods, Alameda County’s Chief Public Defender, knows that prisoners take a dim view of lawyers from the PD’s office. And he wants to change that.
Woods, 48, and a native New Yorker, is the only Black chief public defender among the 58 California counties. He visited San Quentin and met with inmates and discussed how to make California communities safer—that was also a first time event.
“I’m annoyed at myself for taking so long to get here,” said Woods. “There’s a lot for us public defenders to learn.” He acknowledged the bad rap and derogatory names PDs are called, such as “public pretender” and “dump truck” and wants to change that perception.
“I didn’t ‘clean house,’” said Woods, in response to a question about his firing staff. “Some people may have chosen to leave.”
“We’ve changed our model of representation to create a system of trust, with one attorney from beginning to end,” Woods wrote on the county PD website. “We have a lot to do still,” he told the inmates.
Woods said public defenders should treat inmates as clients, not booking numbers. He doesn’t like to hear judges or the sheriff’s bailiffs say, “bring the body in” (to court). The county PD’s website states, in part: “Our client-centered practice gives a voice to those whose voices have been silenced by poverty.”
“We’ve never had a public defender inside [the news- room]”, said Juan Haines, San Quentin News senior editor. In the past, the inmate-run newspaper has arranged discussion forums with district attorneys, law enforcement, legislators and public school teachers.
Woods was given a tour of San Quentin’s media center and a brief history of San Quentin News. Later, Haines explained the forums and programs men have taken to deal with their incarceration, rehabilitation and eventual reentry to society.
Haines said he wanted Woods to hear directly from the men affected by incarceration. He said he also wants in- mates to know all a PD does. He asked Woods what public safety looks like to him.
“In the name of public safety… we’re taking Black and Brown bodies and putting them in cages,” said Haines. “That’s not going to make us safe.”
“I’m all in,” said Woods, in regard to the forum. “I was born to do this.”
But Woods didn’t come alone. He brought some of his staff along to explain the programs developed to keep charged defendants out of prison, including those with substance abuse issues and at-risk youth.
Woods’ office employs full- time social workers “to link clients with essential services throughout their criminal cases, to provide alternatives to incarceration,” according to the Alameda County PD web- site.
“We force the DA and judges to look at the person instead of the crime,” said Sascha Atkins-Loria, a social worker in Alameda County. “We get referrals from attorneys (PDs).” She added that Nancy O’Malley, Alameda County’s District Attorney, “is very supportive of our social program. Whether she is open to expansion, it’s hard to say. It’s an adversarial process.”
“Our reports are completely different than what’s in a [client’s] file,” said Marynella Woods (no relation to Brendon Woods), a social work supervisor. “If people who come to the fo- rum could come away informed and inspired, they can find ways to better assist their clients.”
Woods explained he is making an effort to pro- vide kids with information on how to deal with the police. He has developed a youth know-your-rights program called LYRIC (Learn Your Rights In California), “aimed at empowering high school students by teaching them how to safely assert their constitutional rights,” according to the PD website.
Atkins-Loria said she wants to be involved in which prison her clients are sent to and she also wants to learn more about the success rate of CDCR’s YOP (Youth Offender Pro- gram) in each prison.
“A lot of the kids just need someone to listen to them,” observed Haines.
Alameda County employs 40 support staff and 18 investigators in the public defender’s office, according to its website, and is “devoted to serving our clients.” It has 100 lawyers, many of whom have attended some of the most prestigious law schools in the United States. These attorneys are fluent in more than 12 languages, “and come from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds.”
“People need to be defended in immigration too,” Woods told San Quentin News. “The money is completely imbalanced,” he said, in regard to the funding available for public de- fenders compared to resources spent on prosecutors and law enforcement. “There’s got to be some changes. The ratio is terrible.”
Woods said with the passing of Senate Bill 1437, which changed the felony murder rule, all the PDs are getting “crushed” by it because they haven’t received up-front funding for it. However, he added, “I think 1437 is a better operation of law because it’s clear cut.”
However, Woods did say that Alameda County is “pretty well funded” compared to other counties in California. He said laws like Proposition 47 (the Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act) helped change things.
Prop. 47 reduced some non-violent and non-serious property and drug offenses to misdemeanors. “You don’t need a hammer to get people treatment,” said Woods, adding 88 percent of the social worker program’s clients in his county don’t return to prison.
Rodney Brooks, Executive Programs Manager for the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, has visited San Quentin before. He compiles reports that assess the money saved by defendants not going to the prison system. “I think I learn the most when I’m here,” he said.
According to the PD’s website, Chief Public Defender Woods is “actively engaged with the media to shed light on instances of local law enforcement misconduct.” He and his staff “led public defenders around the Bay Area in holding a Black Lives Matter rally…”
While in office, Woods created its Racial Justice Committee, “charged with addressing the impacts of racism in the criminal justice system and the disproportionate incarceration of minorities,” the PD website noted.
Woods has worked in the Alameda County Public Defender’s office for 23 years, six of those years as its Chief. He graduated law school at the University of San Francisco. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
“Ideas spark change,” said Woods. “I like to work. I like to fight. “We’ve got to make this [the discussions and forums] more of a routine.”