Lori James-Townes, NAPD Executive Director, delivered the following remarks at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Gideon Day celebration in Annapolis on March 18, 2024.

Good evening, distinguished guests, members of the Maryland State Gideon Day Celebration, and esteemed colleagues!

As I stand before you today, representing the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD) with an incredible membership spanning 28,000 dedicated professionals, my heart is filled with a profound sense of gratitude and awe. It is truly remarkable how this journey has blossomed, embracing members from every corner of the nation, touching Puerto Rico and Guam as well. I am here today, not merely as a leader but as a testament to the power of collective vision and unwavering commitment.

At NAPD, we pride ourselves on offering an array of training, development, and community building opportunities that cater to the multifaceted talents within our community. We value each public defender professional, be it social workers, investigators, paralegals, or office managers; or content matter experts in neurology, forensics, juvenile and parental defense; and diversity and inclusion professionals. We would be hypocritical if we did not bring with us the richness of direct experience and proximity with the criminal legal system.

And yes, sometimes, the reality of leading such an impactful organization feels like a dream—and one that requires the occasional pinch to assure its truth!

However, it should not catch me by surprise that I was ready for this challenge: imperfect, incomplete, yet prepared. My readiness was carved out right here, with the Maryland Office of Public Defender. I have worked on close to 100 capital cases across our country and served in leadership positions at the OPD—yes my training came from the offices within OPD—beside some of the best defenders in the nation.

The lessons learned here in Maryland are etched deeply into the fabric of my being.

Maryland, take a bow! Your Public Defenders have championed the rights of countless men, women, and children: our fellow citizens who rely on them to be their voice, their shield in the courtroom across the twelve districts of our state. On days which might mark the darkest moments for some, our public defenders are their beacon of hope and justice.

The Maryland Office of Public Defender stands as a beacon, a model office inspiring other nationwide. When Maryland abolished the death penalty, we leveraged the Unger Decision and stood beside one woman and many men in court for their chance of grace and redemption. And when OPD transformed the focus of the Parental Defense and Juvenile Divisions, and revamped the training, they didn’t just garner the attention of peers; OPD became the very site of for those seeking direction and enlightenment in justice reform.

When OPD implemented programs that addressed addiction and mental health, no one could be prouder of the models than the peers themselves. It should never go unnoticed that Maryland OPD opened its doors to men and women who were once viewed as worthless, and were needed because they add
unmeasurable value. Yes, Maryland is setting standard gold standard!

Gideon‘s legacy is substantial, but it is the Maryland Office of Public Defender that breathes life into fulfilling that legacy. Gideon v. Wainwright reminds us that everyone has the fundamental right to counsel. As Gideon set the stage for change, it did not address the nuances: the need for manageable caseloads, guaranteed investigations, full support from professional staff or for an appropriate number of social workers to give voice to lived experiences to clients while finding them needed services. Gideon did not differentiate the child from the adult nor did Gideon stress the importance of continuous education for defenders. Nevertheless, it began the vital process of tipping the scales toward justice—a task now upon our shoulders to see through.

The representation and subsequent healing of our clients is directly linked to reducing recidivism and despair. A fully funded, resourced, and supported public defender office has to be seen as part of the criminal justice reform scenario.

As we continue to forge paths for others to follow, let us rekindle our collective commitment to the ideals of Gideon. Let us strive to ensure that every person, regardless of their circumstances, receives the vigorous defense they are entitled to. We must embrace the work ahead with tenacity—to fill in where
Gideon left off, to be the architects of a fairer, more compassionate legal system.

In closing, let us celebrate the strides we’ve made and the ones we’re poised to take. Together, with dedication and perseverance, we can uplift the noble legacy of Gideon and solidify the pillars of justice for all. Congratulations to my Maryland Defenders! Keep being tenacious! So many are counting on you.

Thank you.