NAPD: A Reflection on 5 Years
When I became a public defender 24 years ago, I reveled in the role of standing between my client the and the government and telling the government to piss off. I still do. I also have many of the traits that attract people to public defense – We are not joiners, we are rebels, we are the crazy ones, we are anti-authoritarian, and we do not seek rewards or public accolades. We fight, we advocate, we help people. Helping others is our reward.
But those same tendencies lead us to be less than united. We tend to do it alone. I come from a very fractured state – Ohio. Turns out it is kind of a microcosm of the fractured public defense system nationally.
When I was a young public defender facing a problem and trying to find a solution, I often thought to myself I cannot be the only person trying to address this problem – whatever it was. And I wasn’t. PD’s across Ohio were facing the same problems. But most offices in Ohio are county based and little contact was made between the offices. And that means we were all trying to solve the same problem independently.
After a number of years, I became a manager in a PD office. The struggles remained, now they were systemic – underfunding, understaffing, an unfair justice system. And, largely, I was still trying to solve problems alone. I then became lucky enough to rise to a position of leading a state office and had gained just enough wisdom to recognize that my natural anti-authoritarian traits were not going to lead to success.
So, I reached out, looking for help and found other leaders. We would travel to Washington DC and patiently lay out caseload burdens, how the war on drugs was a failure, show spreadsheets that were bleeding red from underfunding, show client populations that screamed of institutional racism, and share study after study exposing the lack of justice in our justice system. But what we found was Washington DC and specifically, the DOJ, does not care much about the 6th Amendment and even less about our clients. And even if it did, it has generations of a prosecutorial mindset and bureaucracy to overcome. So, we got the traditional Washington response – let’s do a study and publish a report. The actual fixing could then be kicked down the road a little further. We had overcome our reticence to seek help but what we found in our call for help to fix our problems was silence.
And it was frustration with ‘studies’ and a recognition that no one was going to solve our problems for us that led us to say enough is enough.
And that brought 40 of us to Dayton five years ago to create NAPD. NAPD, at just five years, is what public defense has needed since Gideon was decided. It is where those doing public defense, most of us fiercely independent, come together to find a home, share a vision, and bring about change.
NAPD is a place to come together.
To solve our own problems together, instead of alone.
To fight together, instead of alone.
To advocate together, instead of alone.
To help people together, instead of alone.
To change the world – together.