Agency Relationships and Workload
There is no doubt we need to keep better data: what we do, how long it takes; and what we SHOULD do, and how long that would take, to provide effective assistance of counsel. Policymakers are right to demand this information.
And then what? I believe that creating and maintaining agency relationships in the system is how we move from good data to more resources, and how we develop client-centered demand reductions.
For example, one of our largest counties had the state’s highest rate of probation violation hearings. The corrections department director brought together leaders from all the justice agencies, including the chief defender. They negotiated a transition to “evidence-based practices.” In the first year our revocation hearing numbers went down 18|PERCENT|. Other counties began to copy the approach. We were then asked to help develop a simplified probation contract which should reduce violations across the state. Some of the people we got to know in this process invited defenders to train probation officers in reducing racial bias in the system—our African-American clients were disproportionately being revoked. We are shaping a system in which everyone wants probation violation numbers to go down: the numbers are important, and so are the relationships.
In other counties the chief defender has talked to other agencies about starting a “Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.” These have led to the creation of at least a dozen diversion programs. In one large county the first-offense property felonies are diverted, about 10|PERCENT| of all the felony defender appointments. Typically the client waives the right to a speedy trial, pays restitution, and the case is dismissed.
One bad thing you hear a lot in defender offices is that “everybody hates our clients.” Well, the National Alliance on Mental Illness doesn’t hate our clients. A third of our clients are mentally ill, and NAMI members are clients’ families. Their local director started sitting next to a p.d. at juvenile justice meetings. Pretty soon the two organizations were exchanging trainers. Defenders testified at the capitol for 2 NAMI bills to get mentally ill folks out of jail. NAMI assigned their lobbying firm “public defender funding” as a top action item. This is another voice to use our data, to speak to funders.
Public defenders have served on about a million court committees. They know the judges pretty well. This helped when the court system got the power to designate certain misdemeanor (crimes, punishable by 90 days in jail) as “payables,” non-crimes, no jail, fine only. We asked them to put all the drivers’ license offenses—Driving After Suspension, etc.—on the payables list. After a couple years, they did. The client doesn’t get a record, the court saves time, we reduce demand by about 8,000 cases a year. Not big cases, sure, but not nothing, either.
We encourage our state’s 700 p.d. staff to get to know their legislators. Sometimes defenders take them on ride-alongs. It is a great asset to have hundreds of skilled advocates working in our agency. We provide them with talking points about the defender budget request so we all stay (sort of) on the same page.
One year a small-town, part-time defender took his senator to court. The defender had a box full of 60 cases and was facing 5 prosecutors who had 10 or 12 each. At the break, the bailiff told the senator, “You’ve got to help these defenders out!” This legislator became Chair of the Judiciary Finance Committee…
In every one of these situations good data is vital. But just as vital, you have to have the policymaker know you, and understand what you’re doing, and appreciate what the data really means in the lives of defenders and their clients. The audience needs to be warmed up (sometimes quite a bit) before they see the convincing spreadsheet.
We have to develop the ability to say, “decriminalizing Driving After Suspension will save 5,840 hours of attorney time.” We also need for the audience for that information to understand why they should free up that time for us—they have to be taught to want to help us. And sometimes it will be in the interest of other justice system parties to help us advocate for changes which will reduce demand on everybody; since we are usually the most over-burdened, this helps us, and our clients, most of all.