I want to write about the potential of NAPD’s Systems Builders Committee. The Committee is comprised of current and retired defender leaders, public defender board and/or commission members, and system advocates representing a range of experiences and perspectives on public defense issues. Its mission is to assist leaders who are building excellent, client-centered public defense programs, through training, consultation, and collaboration.

It’s an especially exciting time to be a public defender. Culture change abounds in many forms, and while I am cautious not to celebrate prematurely, there are many indications that hope is a far more reasonable sentiment than cynicism.

Among these reasons: the persistent tragedy of police violence is creating an empowered public to take video after video after video, and local incidents are receiving the national coverage they deserve. There is increased transparency in police investigations and broader recognition that fair management of these issues is essential to community welfare. These incidents and their increased media exposure have made it easier for public defenders to devote energy and resources to systemic issues like racial profiling, police credibility, and community outreach.

Advocates and organizers in Ferguson, MO are leading the charge to bring advocacy/litigation of exploitative fines & fees to the forefront. Community-oriented defense, often viewed as “peripheral” or simply unattainable, has become much more widely recognized as “fundamental.”

The embrace of timekeeping by leaders across the country – and the data that methodologically sound timekeeping data analysis can produce, offers real hope for a solution to the workload crisis of public defenders, and the opportunity to bring accountability to the other agencies within justice systems who have been largely unaccountable for their resource expenditures.

The Department of Justice seems far more responsive and to be making positive, impactful statements on a range of issues. Their investment, and our continued cultivation of this relationship is a really good development. Hopefully, soon, more dollars will flow to public defender offices and the extreme disparity of federal funding to law enforcement will be adjusted, at least somewhat.

Increased use of social media, innovative methods to engage clients in participatory defense, proactive communications work are being embraced by public defender advocates who for too long have not had their voices heard, or their client’s stories told.

These are just a few of the enormous opportunities for public defenders to create change in justice systems.

Here’s where Systems Builders come in: to ensure that newly reformed or reforming public defense systems successfully develop model systems by offering sustained, relevant and responsive support as public defender offices transition from a reform “achievement” (which happens in a moment, by vote of a Legislature or stroke of a pen) to the often long and grueling period of reform “implementation.”

In Louisiana, my introduction to public defense reform started in 2004. Then, there was just a 5-person statewide public defense oversight body with such limited statutory authority that their function was almost exclusively limited to writing checks.  The real oversight (in theory) took place in 41 independent district boards, and the diversity of perspective and engagement was staggering (Though a few districts had the benefit of proper, diligent oversight, most did not. In 2008, when the Louisiana Public Defender Board was staffed, a full quarter of these local boards did not even exist.)

The Louisiana reform movement was intense and multi-prong. Especially in its final 4 years before achieving legislative reform, there was lots of activity: a Legislative Task Force, multiple reports and evaluations, class-action litigation in Calcasieu Parish, lobbying efforts, an OSF-funded public education/media campaign, State Bar activism, and more.  The Public Defender Act of 2007 became law on August 15, 2007 after a consensus-oriented process, dozens of drafts of legislation, and with all stakeholders at the table.

The next April, Loyola University School of Law hosted a Symposium. David Carroll, who was the Legislature’s expert as it considered the Public Defender Act, said this: “As hard as it was to get here, to the passage of the Public Defender Act of 2007, the implementation that lies ahead will be infinitely harder.”

A blog is no place to try to recap the history of the implementation struggles from that moment onward, but OSF did not renew its funding for the campaign in Louisiana, national interest in the class-action lawsuit in Calcasieu Parish withered, lobbying efforts redirected to other topics and Bar interest waned with new leadership. Louisiana’s public defense system – perhaps assumed to have been “fixed” – would have greatly benefitted from sustained support for any number of projects – strategic planning, board training, guidance on the hiring of staff, case management system exploration, office manuals and training, professional development, performance-based budgeting support… it’s a long list.

This is the exciting niche that Systems Builders will fill. It goes without saying that the opportunity to hire a new leader, restructure a system or implement a policy only begins with the authority to do so, but often times the struggle for authorization requires so much from so many, there is little left over for the stages ahead. Support for implementation is vitally important.

This year in Louisiana, 12 of the state’s 42 districts face insolvency, and another 25 are projected to operate at a deficit. In fiscal year 2016, the number of insolvent districts is projected to be 25, with 8 more operating at a deficit. It has been 8 years since the passage of the Public Defender Act, and it is clear that the challenges are enormous, and will take many years to address. (You can read more about the financial projections for Louisiana public defender offices at this link.

Reflecting on my time in Louisiana, I wonder how things might have gone if the Legislative Task Force had been maintained, if funders had invested in reform implementation, if the Bar had remained an engaged partner, or if interest in litigation had continued. Certainly, too little money and a state hell-bent on maintaining its incarceration title are major factors for the continued struggle in Louisiana (among others), but I am certain that the Systems Builders Committee – either through their coaching and mentoring, or through the materials that they are developing, would have been a hugely beneficial resource to the young Louisiana Public Defender Board.

As public defender systems around the country consider change in these changing times – in places that have reached out to NAPD’s Systems Builders already – like Tulsa, OK (hiring a new Chief Defender), San Antonio, TX (starting the county’s first office, 8 staff and growing), or MI (implementing statewide reform), my own experience affirms that this is a much needed service with incredible potential. I wish Systems Builders had been available for advocates in Louisiana when it was taking its first steps, and I hope other systems reach out since it is available now.