An Interview with Lane Borg
NAPD: Tell us about your career as a public defender?
In 1984, I started working as a certified law student at Metro Public Defenders. After graduating I was hired as a staff attorney in 1985. I stayed with MPD until 1988, leaving to go to the other PD’s office in Portland as the Asst Dir. This started a 20 year walkabout that included, 3 years with Mult Defenders, 4 years working at the court as a magistrate and 13 years in private practice until I came home to MPD in 2008 as the Executive Director. In 2017, I was honored to be selected as the Ex Director of our state agency, Office of Public Defense Services.
NAPD: What led you to move into leadership?
In 1987, I was given the opportunity to run the misdemeanor section of MPD’s Portland office. I was interested in the process of training new lawyers to do criminal defense. The office was growing and creating a middle management system. Jim Hennings, the founding Ex Dir invested in management training for those of us making the transition into management which proved to be both valuable and transformative to me. Of my 33 years as a member of the bar in Oregon I have been in management for 30 years.
NAPD: What were you most proud of with your leadership of the Portland Office?
Other than attending the founding meeting of NAPD in Dayton, Oh in 2013, what I am most proud of was overseeing the introduction of what became the Community Law section that diversified the mission of the office to include MPD’s version of holistic defense. An integral part of this process was reintroduction of a robust student program including both summer interns, academic year externs and finally a partnership with Lewis & Clark Law School for a clinic serving the Community Law section.
NAPD: Oregon has a unique system. Will you tell us about it?
We are blessed to have an independent commission that oversees my current office, OPDS. This gives us a great deal of freedom within state government to advocate for quality and reform. We also enjoy a relatively broad level of support from the legislature and from a Governor that has not forgotten she started as a public defender.
We are challenged by having inherited a funding system that relies exclusively on private contractors for trial level service delivery and is funded by a case rate model begun in the early 1980s. We have many good lawyers doing this important work but the structure of our system too often either prevents best practices or incentivizes bad practices.
I am hopeful because we received funding for both a qualitative assessment of our system through the 6th Amend Center and a quantitative assessment of our caseload/workload through the ABA.
NAPD: What are your top priorities as Oregon State Public Defender?
Changing the case rate model is my top priority. Almost 40 years ago the State took over public defense from the counties and adopted a case rate model because it was efficient and predictable. Now this system favors practices that are inconsistent with quality representation and resistant to needed reforms like client centered representation. We have great lawyers doing incredible work on behalf of clients but it is in spite of our funding model not because of it.
Another priority is overall funding. Like so many states we struggle with parity as compared to prosecutors which is both offensive and demoralizing. But we cannot rest on our status as constitutionally mandated to convince legislatures to increase funding. We must expand the paradigm of public defense to include true client centered representation. I believe that this is the path through which we will demonstrate a value added model for fully funded public defense to realize sustainable community safety. When we go to trial we need to unapologetically fight like hell, but when we negotiate a resolution we also need to fight like hell for sentences that are fair and help our clients with adequately resourced programs in the community.
NAPD: What is your organization’s greatest strength?
As a general rule we do not have to make a case for getting a seat at the table with other public safety stakeholders. This gives us access and relevance in this space that we need to carefully curate to be as effective as we can be in achieving smart reforms.
NAPD: What are your organization’s biggest barriers?
It is sometimes hard to see beyond this funding model so we have entrenched thinking that tries to solve problems in terms of tweaking the current system rather than reimagining the whole model.
NAPD: Are excessive workloads a problem in Oregon?
The workloads are excessive because the primary way an attorney increases compensation is to take more cases. Also, by focusing just on cases covered and closed but ignoring outcomes we facilitate taking excessive caseloads. That said, it is very sporadic, some attorneys have too many cases and some do not, but by not having caps we encourage folks to take on too much.
NAPD: What is the status of pretrial release in Oregon?
We do not have a bail bonds industry in Oregon but we still are too reliant on cash bail. Currently the Public Safety Task Force, which I am a member of, is in the process of issuing a report to lay out a path to elimination of cash bail for release. We will of course struggle with the appropriate use of Risk Assessment tools but I am hopeful we can achieve a fairer system if we can get money out of the decision to release.
NAPD: Tell us about your plans to improve diversity in your organization?
When I was at MPD we had a great deal of success in diversifying our attorney staff by recruiting and taking full advantage of tuition forgiveness programs offered by many law schools. For students of color and other marginalized groups the tuition forgiveness made it possible to take job in a public interest law firm and still get out from crushing law school debt. I am hopeful I can continue that record in my new position. That said, I believe that the concept of positive action, or affirmative action, has been unfairly maligned. The only way to diversify is to hire diverse candidates, we have to value diversity in the work place before we can make this happen. To make them stronger we diversify our portfolios, we diversify our environment, and we diversify our diet; so why do we see this as weakening our work place?
NAPD: In 4 years, how do you want people to describe your organization?
As a change agent that not only got rid of the case rate model, but is on the way to transforming public defense. In the ideal setting, public defenders and their participation in policy making would be seen as essential to any successful social justice reform.
NAPD: How do you maintain work/life balance?
I am fortunate to be in organizations, both previously and currently, that values work beyond just the agency. The ability to work with other defenders across the country through organizations like NAPD, NLADA, and work with the MacArthur Foundation’s Public Safety Challenge have given me a perspective that is invigorating.
But I also believe in taking one’s time off. I find that travel (especially overseas) is enriching and visiting grandchildren helps keeps me humble. They are totally unimpressed since I don’t have a badge and I don’t have a security detail.
Executive Director, Oregon Office of Public Defense Services