An Interview with Damon Preston, Kentucky Public Advocate
Damon Preston, Kentucky Public Advocate
NAPD: Tell us about your career as a public defender?
I started as a public defender in the Harvard Defenders clinical in law school. Since then, I have worked as an appellate defender for the Legal Aid Society in New York City and in various positions for the Department of Public Advocacy in Kentucky, including staff attorney, trial office supervisor, appellate manager, division director, general counsel, Deputy Public Advocate, and now Public Advocate. My entire 23-year career has been in public defense.
NAPD: What led you to move into leadership?
My first leadership position came about for a simple reason: I was asked. I was working as a staff attorney and a manager from a different part of the state approached me and asked if I would be interested in moving to become a supervisor of an office that needed one. Until that conversation, I thought I was not ready for leadership. I accepted that position because I saw leadership as a way to serve even more clients though helping other attorneys and staff members. Since that first position 17 years ago, I have continued to view defender leadership as an opportunity to serve clients by creating systems and inspiring people to improve public defender services.
NAPD: Tell us about the Kentucky public defense system?
I would humbly submit that Kentucky has the best public defender system in the country. We are a comprehensive statewide system that employs full-time public defenders to handle all criminal appointments, including juvenile, misdemeanor, felony, contempt, capital, appellate, and post-conviction cases. We have an excellent training branch that begins training new defenders on their first day and continues with a multi-week defender college throughout their first year on the job. Our annual conference, regional trainings, webinars, and specialized events make sure that no defender is unprepared for the work they are assigned. We are located within the Executive Branch, but with a statutorily-established independence from other Executive Branch agencies. This allows us to establish policies and practices to help our clients without interference from others who believe we should do things differently. We are supported by an independent Public Advocacy Commission, which is made up of strong leaders who are important allies for the Department.
All that said, Kentucky’s system, like most defender systems, is badly underfunded. Excessive caseloads, substandard pay, and inadequate support staff undermine what we gain from an efficient client-centered structure and a tradition of strong leadership. These challenges limit our ability to serve clients at the level they deserve.
NAPD: What are your top priorities as Kentucky Public Advocate?
Increasing funding is the top priority. Our caseloads are far above the national standards and continue to rise. Our salaries are among the lowest in the country, leading to costly turnover and limiting our ability to recruit top attorney candidates. Our conflict system pays private attorneys so low they are basically working for free. Addressing all of these needs depends on increasing available funding.
Beyond funding, I hope to improve DPA as a desirable workplace through efforts to increase interactions, communication, and professional satisfaction. Public defenders deserve higher pay and opportunities for advancement, but they also deserve a healthy collegial environment in which to work. I believe public defense is the most rewarding career for an attorney and we want to make defenders feel appreciated, encouraged, and supported if they choose this path.
NAPD: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
I believe in collaboration and consensus, not top-down direction. I expect employees to do their job in a professional and effective manner, even if they do it in a way different from how I would do that same job. I believe employees and leaders work best when they are given clear goals that they are expected to achieve, but then a degree of autonomy as to how to achieve them and the freedom to make mistakes. I believe an organization works best when it is comprised of people with many perspectives, opinions, and approaches, all working towards the same objective.
NAPD: What is your organization’s greatest strength?
It sounds cold to say, but I think our greatest strength is our agency structure, which was gradually implemented by DPA leaders over the past four decades. We have a statewide system in place that gives us independence from the courts and other parts of government. As long as our structure and independence are in place, we are well-positioned to be as effective as possible in serving clients.
Our biggest human strength is our network of local office supervisors. We have 36 offices, each led by a directing attorney. While not all directing attorneys are created equal, they are generally very dedicated and capable defenders who serve DPA and clients well.
NAPD: What are your organization’s biggest barriers?
Funding is the biggest and perhaps only significant barrier. We have an effective structure in place and a very strong Public Advocacy Commission to assist DPA in carrying out our mission. We just need more money to reduce caseloads, increase pay, and improve our system for handling conflict cases.
NAPD: Tell us about what you are thinking of doing about the problem of excessive workloads?
Kentucky’s caseloads have been too high for decades so there is no great solution other than getting the necessary funding to hire more attorneys. Two years ago, Kentucky’s Governor proposed funding for DPA to hire 44 additional attorneys specifically to reduce caseloads. Unfortunately, the legislature removed this funding from the final budget, but my hope is that we will be able to convince the Governor and the legislature to fund additional attorneys in the next budget.
NAPD: What problems with predatory practices (jailing for failing to pay fines and fees) do you have in Kentucky?
Kentucky has passed laws twice in the last six years to address court practices of jailing poor people for failure to pay court costs, fines, or fees. It is a problem that exists in specific jurisdictions around the state, but not everywhere. Our hope is to use the new law to litigate the issues and achieve an appellate decision making clear (again) that poverty should not be grounds for imprisonment.
NAPD: Kentucky is a leader in pretrial release reform. What are your thoughts about continuing this movement?
Since outlawing bail bondsmen forty years ago, Kentucky has been a leader in pretrial release process. Unfortunately, Kentucky is not necessarily a leader in actually getting those accused of offenses released. Kentucky law gives trial judges broad discretion to deny release or set an unreasonably high bond, even if in cases when a person’s record, community ties, or an objective validated risk assessment indicates that the person is not a risk if released.
In 2011, Kentucky passed a law that should have increased release rates, but the existence of broad judicial discretion resulted in little change and, in many jurisdictions, no change. Frustration that many low-risk persons are still being held pretrial has created momentum for taking another shot at expanding release. My goal is to support that momentum and play whatever role I can in achieving pretrial release reform that upholds the presumption of innocence and recognizes that most accused persons are not an ongoing threat to public safety if released.
NAPD: You have been very involved with expungement in Kentucky. Can you tell us about that?
In 2016, Kentucky became one of the last states to allow some felony convictions to be expunged. We had been advocating expanding expungement for more than a decade so our clients would have economic and employment opportunities without being limited by a long-ago criminal conviction. Since the passage of the bill, I have led about a dozen educational events to inform communities and lawyers about the new law. By all accounts, the law has been a great success. Our hope is that it can be expanded to include more felonies in the future.
NAPD: Kentucky has an award winning social worker program. Can you tell us about it, and give us your thoughts on continuing the progress on this front?
Kentucky’s award-winning Alternative Sentencing Worker (ASW) program is now in its second decade. ASWs develop individualized alternative sentencing plans for clients who would otherwise go to prison or detention. Most of them are masters’ level social workers. The program has been studied on three different occasions and has been found to be effective and cost-efficient, saving the state anywhere from $3 to $6 in corrections’ costs per $1 invested in the program.
NAPD: How do you maintain work/life balance?
I am committed to making DPA the most professional and effective organization it can be and will work hard to accomplish that, but the success I have had in my career so far has been enabled by a recognition that work is work and non-work is non-work. The work schedule of a Public Advocate will never by a standard 9 to 5 workday, but it cannot be a 24-hour preoccupation either. When I am “on the clock”, whenever that is, I am fully focused on DPA’s needs and our services to clients. At the end of the day or other times when I am not working, I am focused on my family, my church, my hobbies, and generally life outside DPA. If I need to spend time on DPA matters at non-regular times, I am committed to do whatever I need to do, but I am very intentional about not allowing work to invade the times when I should be giving attention to the other parts of my life.