Alameda Public Defenders seek input during forum
Prisoners seeking to understand the role of public defenders invited Alameda County Public Defender Brandon Woods to San Quentin to talk about his vision for public defense. He said he is working to make significant changes to improve defense outcomes.
The purpose of the Sept. 6 forum was to “promote public safety by building a bridge between public defenders and the incarcerated in order to develop strategies that address the social, environmental and economic conditions that foster criminal thinking and behavior,” the event brochure read.
The forum began with 30 prisoners and about 30 lawyers from the public defender’s office meeting in a large circle.
The participants broke into six small circles to discuss the prisoners’ experience with their public defenders and ways they could be better advocates.
When the groups rejoined the large circle, they talked about what they learned from each other.
The prisoners said they realized the difficulties that criminal defense attorneys undergo in performing their jobs and also the lawyers’ passion for defense work.
Woods told the nearly 30 prisoners that he takes his job very seriously.
“When we think about Oakland, home of the Black Panthers. But it wasn’t un- til 2012 that there has been a Black public defender,” Woods said.
As to why he became a public defender, Woods said, “I was born into a lower income home that was impacted by the system. I want to advocate for people so that they are not negatively impacted by the system.”
The three-hour forum included a PowerPoint presentation by Woods to explain a “Holistic Defense.” Slide-by-slide, he explained the duties of a civil attorney, the Clean Slate Program, the need for social workers and family defense attorneys as well as immigration attorneys, parent advocates, investigators and policy and community organizers.
“There are actors in the system that don’t want to see change,” Woods said regard- ing the difficulty in getting these programs running.
As an example, he pointed to changing the Public Defenders Mission Statement.
The old mission statement read, “The mission of the Public Defender is to provide a fully competent, effective and ethical defense for each cli- ent whose representation has been entrusted to the office; to conduct that representation in a manner that promotes fairness in the administration of justice; and to provide all mandated legal services in a cost effective and efficient manner.”
After reading the mission statement, Woods looked to the audience and said, “To provide all mandated legal services in a cost effective and efficient manner. What does that mean?”
He then read the new mission statement, “To zealously protect and defend the rights of our clients through compassionate and inspired legal representation of the highest quality, in pursuit of a fair and unbiased system of justice for all.”
He discussed Clean Slate, which is a program designed to assist people in obtaining or improving employment opportunities as well as improving access to housing and other services.
Of the 2,854 motions filed in 2018 for Clean Slate, 2,746 were granted. Woods said Clean Slate has a 96% success rate.
He also brought up the Social Worker Program (SWP).
To date, SWP served over 1,155 people. The courts accepted 85% of treatment plans instead of incarceration and 88% of clients who received treatment did not recidivate.
Woods is the first African American to be appointed Chief Public Defender in Alameda County and is the only Black Chief Public Defender in California.
To put the challenges that Woods faces in context, other Alameda County department budgets are:
• Sheriff – $299.5 million
• Probation – $114.3 million
• District Attorney – $69.2 million
• Public Defender – $40.7 million
The Alameda County Public Defender office is comprised of 105 attorneys, 18 investigators and 38 support staff to manage 3,300 new cases monthly.