An NAPD Interview with VIDC Executive Director David Johnson
NAPD: Tell us about your career as a public defender?
David Johnson: I graduated from Law School in 1983 and spent 3 years in private practice primarily doing court-appointed criminal defense work. In 1986, The Richmond PD office and I was hired as an assistant PD. 3 years later, I became the Chief Public Defender and spent the next 17 years heading the office. In 2006, I became the executive director of the VIDC.
NAPD: Tell us about the Virginia public defense system?
David Johnson: The Virginia Indigent Defense Commission is a 14 member supervisory commission that oversees Virginia’s Public Defender system. There are 25 PD offices and 4 Regional Capital Defender offices spread throughout the state. These offices range in size from 4 attorneys to 30. We employ a total of 546 attorneys and support staff. In jurisdictions not covered by PD offices, court-appointed counsel provide representation. The VIDC provides initial and continuing certification and training for all court-appointed counsel. Virginia also has statutorily mandated Standards of Practice for Indigent Defense Counsel which are publicized and enforced by the VIDC.
NAPD: What are your top priorities as Executive Director?
David Johnson: To ensure that our attorneys have the training, support and resources they need to provide quality, client-centered representation.
NAPD: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
David Johnson: You are only going to be as good as the people you work with. Hire good people and do everything you can to help them develop.
NAPD: What is your organization’s greatest strength?
David Johnson: A core of dedicated professionals who are “lifers”.
NAPD: What are your organization’s biggest problems?
David Johnson: Retention of talented attorneys.
NAPD: How are you dealing with those problems?
David Johnson: We have added supervisory positions and now around 100 of our 340 attorneys occupy supervisory (and better compensated) positions. We were able to add 12 “senior trial attorney “ positions last year. These are non-supervisor attorneys who develop a specific area of specialization and are compensated at a supervisor’s level. Our Commission just approved 12 additional positions for next year. We have also increased training opportunities for committed attorneys. (For example, just sent 12 attorneys to Gideon’s promise train the Trainer Program.)
NAPD: Are there problems with caseloads in Virginia?
David Johnson: We commissioned a workload study by the National Center for State Courts several years ago to determine what PD caseloads in Virginia should be. Our average attorney caseload now falls within the t recommended range (although still large). We are also fortunate in that our enabling statute requires the court to appoint the local PD office “except in cases of conflict.” Our courts have agreed with us that excessive caseloads create a conflict and allow our individual PD Chiefs to refuse to accept cases when necessary.
NAPD: What problems with predatory practices (jailing for failing to pay fines and fees) do you have in Virginia?
David Johnson: Perhaps our biggest challenge are Virginia’s incredibly restrictive discovery rules. Efforts at meaningful reform have been ongoing, and unsuccessful, for decades.
NAPD: How do you maintain relations with the client community?
David Johnson: Our individual offices have gotten heavily involved in re-entry efforts to assist our clients. Our sentencing advocates (social workers) are adept at building and maintaining positive client relationships.
NAPD: How do you ensure that professional development occurs?
David Johnson: We are committed to providing quality training opportunities for our attorneys and professional staff. In addition to providing a full slate of training programs in-house, we routinely send attorneys to out-of-state training programs. We also pay for State and local bar association dues for our attorneys to encourage interaction with the bar.
NAPD: How do you communicate with the criminal justice system in your jurisdiction?
David Johnson: Because we certify attorneys for the court-appointed list annually, we maintain email addresses for nearly 2500 criminal defense attorneys. We use this to publicize training opportunities and are often asked by other entities to send important information to our certified attorneys on their behalf. As Executive Director, I serve actively on a large number of boards and commissions within the criminal justice system. We also maintain a legal resource website that is available to the court-appointed bar.
NAPD: In 4 years, how do you want people to describe your organization?
David Johnson: As a progressive, client centered organization dedicated to the principles of zealous representation as fostered and promoted by Gideon’s Promise and NAPD.
NAPD: How do you maintain work/life balance?
David Johnson: I try not to take my work problems home with me to ensure that “family time” is truly meaningful. I coached little league baseball and youth basketball and never missed a flute or dance recital. I am a very active member of my church and my faith has been an integral part of my practice.
NAPD: What else do you want your fellow defenders to know about you and your organization?
David Johnson: After 30 years, I feel that my time to make a meaningful and lasting impact is running out. I am determined not to go quietly into the night….
A 1983 graduate of the TC Williams School of Law, Dave Johnson now serves as Executive Director of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission. Prior to his appointment in December of 2005, he served as Public Defender for the City of Richmond for nearly 20 years. A past president of the Richmond Criminal Bar Association and recipient of the Association’s Craig S. Cooley Award, Johnson was named by Virginia Lawyers Weekly as one of their Leaders in The Law in 2006. He currently serves on the Department of Criminal Justice Services Board, the Secure Commonwealth Panel Law Enforcement Technology Sub-Panel, as a Steering Committee member of the Virginia Criminal Justice Conference, on the Commonwealth’s Evidence Based Decision Making State Policy Team, as a Governor’s appointee to The Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice, and as a Governor’s appointee to the Virginia Prisoner and Juvenile Offender Reentry Council. He is also a long-time Assistant Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Richmond School of law where he teaches classes on trial advocacy and the criminal client relationship.