.Balancing the Scales of Justice

Brendon Woods, Alameda County's new public defender, is determined to raise the profile of his office and speak out on behalf of indigent defendants.

When Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern proposed to buy a drone earlier this year, his plan drew national attention and immediate condemnation from civil libertarians concerned about the increasing scope of the surveillance state nationwide. Ahern and his staff decided to argue their case for purchasing the drone at an Alameda County Board of Supervisors committee meeting in Oakland on February 14. It turned out to be one of the highest-profile public meetings in recent memory.

After several Bay Area civil rights lawyers — including Linda Lye of the ACLU of Northern California and Oakland attorney Michael Siegel — stated their opposition to Ahern’s plan, county Supervisor Richard Valle made an unusual announcement: A county department head wanted to address the committee. Brendon Woods, who had recently been appointed to be the Alameda County Public Defender, stepped to the podium.

Woods drove right to the heart of the issue: the sheriff’s desire to use the drone to investigate possible felonies and misdemeanors. “Alameda County has been a leader in justice and technology, and the intersection of the two,” Woods said. “My request would be that we not be a leader on the forefront of technology that will infringe upon our civil liberties.”

Woods’ brief testimony went mostly unnoticed amid the spirited debate over the surveillance drone, but it represented a key moment in the recent history of the Alameda County Public Defender. Although the office is the second oldest in the country and one of the most respected in the state, the Alameda County Public Defender has remained on the sidelines of county politics and the raging debate over criminal justice and law enforcement that has engulfed Oakland and much of California.

The previous public defender, Diane Bellas, who ran the office for twelve years, rarely took stances on major issues, and her reticence to engage in public affairs represented a stark contrast to San Francisco County Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who takes very public positions on criminal justice matters and law enforcement misconduct.

But Woods is determined to change that. The first African-American public defender in Alameda County history is intent on reaching out to the public and engaging in policy issues in a manner that promises to reshape the local discourse on criminal justice, which often has been polarized between those who want police accountability and those who want more tough-on-crime measures.

Woods is also overhauling the Public Defender’s Office’s internal practices in ways that promise to not only strengthen the legal representation of indigent criminal defendants, but also provide them with meaningful services and opportunities aimed at reducing recidivism and getting them on the right track.

Woods, however, is taking a gamble with his ambitious agenda. Unlike Adachi, who is elected by San Francisco voters, Woods was appointed by county supervisors, and thus serves at their discretion. According to Adachi, this setup, which is common in California, has made public defenders reluctant to speak openly on criminal justice matters for fear of angering their bosses, who are often averse to controversy. “Many appointed public defenders feel constrained by the fact that they are appointed,” Adachi noted, referring to conversations he has with his counterparts in other California counties.

County district attorneys, by contrast, typically hold elected positions, and thus have greater latitude to speak openly on issues and advocate on behalf of law enforcement. Not surprisingly, the public debate over criminal justice issues in California has traditionally been one-sided — tilted toward law-and-order and away from civil rights and civil liberties. Adachi noted that public defenders “are not on equal footing with the prosecutor … and what that does is it gives a DA a bully pulpit to be able to talk about crime and reform.”

But for the 42-year-old Woods, the desire to level the public policy playing field and give voice to the voiceless is also born from personal experience — from growing up black in America and being the victim of racial profiling. Those early-life episodes, in fact, helped steer him toward the legal profession nearly two decades ago, and toward becoming a public defender, representing those who can’t afford to hire their own attorney.

And today, he’s resolved to speak out on their behalf, not just in the courtroom, but also in the court of public opinion, even if it could eventually cost him his job. “I don’t see myself as being quiet,” Woods recently told me. “As a public defender, you’re here to fight, so that’s kind of inherent in the job. And sometimes you will just agree to disagree.

“Drones could have a major impact on our clients’ civil liberties,” he continued. “I felt I had to step up. I do believe Ahern when he says he won’t spy on people in their backyards, but once we go down that road, where do we stop? Who’s going to be the next sheriff, and will they have the same viewpoint?”

From a young age, Brendon D. Woods found himself leaning toward the law. Born in Jamaica, Queens to West Indian immigrants, he was raised by his mother and extended family. “My dad wasn’t there,” he said. “Let’s say I’d probably represent him.”

Woods and his mother moved several times after she joined the Navy, first to South Carolina, then to North Carolina and Virginia. And like innumerable African-American men, Woods had formative encounters with law enforcement that shaped his view of the criminal justice system. “There are certain things that happen to young black men that don’t happen to people of other backgrounds in this country,” he noted.

He recalled one experience as a youth after he and his mother moved from Virginia Beach to a more upscale community in Fairfax, Virginia. “We were waiting out in front of our new house to get the keys, and the neighbors called the police on us,” he said, laughing at the memory.

Woods attended four different high schools before moving to Carmel, California after his mother got accepted to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. There, he lettered in football and track and field. But once he was old enough to drive, Woods was frequently stopped by police for minor infractions. One incident in particular left an impression: He was driving back to Carmel High School from a yearbook party during he senior year, when a police officer followed him all the way to the school and questioned him in the parking lot in front of his peers.

After graduation, Woods went south to UC Santa Barbara in 1988. But he decided not to take pre-law courses at UCSB, choosing instead to major in political science and policy. “I always wanted to be a lawyer, I just never thought it was feasible,” he said. “From a young age, I was a peacemaker and wanted to argue for the other side.”

But Woods said that, as a child and a young adult, he was more focused on being practical. While in college, he worked at a pizza parlor and a furniture store to support himself, and trained with the campus Army ROTC program. When he arrived at UCSB, his plan was to join the military after college, like his mother, but then he shied away from enlisting. “I appreciated the structure and discipline, but the part of losing my individuality wasn’t appealing,” Woods said. The US invasion of Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War also turned Woods off to the prospects of a military career.

Woods’ desire to pursue law grew out of courses he took from the Department of Black Studies at UCSB. His coursework focused on the work of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., as well as prominent figures from the African anti-colonial struggles, such as Amílcar Cabral and Kwame Nkrumah. “In retrospect, it was shocking to get that sort of exposure at a place like UCSB, but they had — and still have — a robust black studies department,” Woods said, adding that the experience “provided such greater exposure when you start learning from the struggles that African Americans had in this country over the centuries, and made me want to give back — to contribute to my community in my professional life.”

Woods eventually gravitated toward criminal law, and then to defense work. “I knew I was either going to be a public defender or work in civil rights litigation,” Woods said. “They’re the best ways to contribute to the community I’m from.”

Working as a prosecutor did not click with Woods’ personal experiences or those of his family. His uncle, whom he was close to during his childhood, is in federal prison for bank robbery. Another cousin was in and out of custody in Los Angeles and San Francisco for drug possession and other felonies. Woods and his family are awaiting confirmation from San Francisco authorities that a body found under a pier in San Francisco on June 10 was that of his cousin.

Another formative experience took place when Woods got pulled over by police in Ventura while still attending UCSB. A friend’s car had broken down in King City, so he decided to drive north to pick him up with two other companions. On the way back, “police pulled us over, made me get out of the car, sit down and cuffed my hands behind my back,” Woods recalled. He was forced to sit on the curb for 45 minutes while handcuffed, while police kept asking the three passengers — all of whom were white — if they were all right. “They thought I’d kidnapped the passengers in the car,” Woods said.

After graduating from law school at the University of San Francisco in 1996, he went to work as a post-bar clerk for the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office. He was hired as a deputy public defender two years later. Litigating trials was his goal. “It put me over the top: You are the ultimate advocate, you have your client and you’re fighting for them,” he said. “You’re 100 percent invested in them.”

Public defenders are the draft horses of the criminal justice system. All defendants in criminal cases have the right to an attorney even if they can’t afford to hire one, thanks to the 1963 Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright. Public defenders, however, are widely viewed as the inglorious counterparts to district attorneys, who have been lionized by generations of television shows like Law and Order. Public defenders traditionally have been hindered by limited resources and saddled with staggering caseloads. Consequently, many well-off defendants turn to private attorneys for what they view as more reliable representation, although that often isn’t the case.

The Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, in fact, has a long-standing reputation for being one of the best of its kind in California and for vigorously representing its clients. But it does have a heavy caseload. According to internal statistics, the 100-attorney office took on 35,595 new cases in 2012. Each lawyer in the department assigned to felony cases carries an average of 273 of them per year, while attorneys responsible for misdemeanors oversee 353 cases annually on average. The office currently is working on 58 homicide cases.

Woods worked his way up through the office, beginning in the misdemeanor unit, and then advancing to felony cases, where he did two rotations in the trial unit. Looking back, Woods said that the second tour of courtroom trials stretched his limits to the breaking point. “At that time, I was carrying 30 to 45 cases, including 12 to 14 life cases,” he said. “And all the time, I had this feeling like I’d never get everything done.

“For me, the wins don’t stick with me,” he continued. “That’s not what you lose sleep over at night. The losses take their tolls.”

From early in his career, Woods had his eye on the top job in the office. As he worked his way up from trial attorney to management positions, he also kept close tabs on the relationship between the public defender’s office and the community at large. Although the office provided solid legal services to its clients, that relationship ended at the courthouse.

“The people we serve need to know we’re here to help them,” Woods said. “There are a lot of preconceptions and misgivings about us … [that] we’re not prepared, not responsive. None of that is true.”

Still, there is no argument that, in countless communities throughout the United States, district attorney’s offices receive far more financial resources than public defenders. “There are some places in this state where prosecutors are heavily resourced and the public defenders aren’t,” Woods noted. “The chances of people being falsely accused and convicted is high, and it’s even higher for blacks and poor folks.”

And because DAs are often elected rather than appointed, they’re far more likely to speak out publicly, usually advocating for more tough-on-crime measures — and against additional protections for defendants. In recent years, San Francisco’s Adachi has shown how the power of holding an elected office can help balance the public discourse. His office has emerged as a serious counterweight to the district attorney and the San Francisco Police Department, blowing the whistle on corruption at San Francisco’s crime lab and on illegal searches at residential hotels in South of Market and the Mission, both of which resulted in local and federal investigations that are still ongoing.

Woods admires the way Adachi has brought the SF Public Defender national recognition. Woods’ decision to speak up on the drone issue earlier this year was part of a broader resolve to take stances on criminal justice issues that affect public defenders’ clients — namely, poor people charged with crimes. “If it has an impact on our clients, we should be at the table,” he said.

“I do believe it is part of the public defender’s role, if the system is going to work, is we have to be on the lookout for police misconduct,” he continued.

That stance contrasts sharply with that of his predecessor, Bellas, who went out of her way to avoid political tussles and remain in good standing with the board of supervisors. For example, during the fight over Oakland’s gang injunctions two years ago, Bellas ignored requests from advocates for the defendants who called for her to intervene in the process as Adachi had done in 2007 in an injunction against Mission Norteños.

Adachi and other public defenders, in turn, hold Woods in high esteem and have high hopes for his tenure. “Brendon is a visionary,” Adachi said. “He wants to take that office to the next level and is interested in looking at best practices not only here, but everywhere.”

Adachi also applauded Woods’ determination to be more outspoken. “If there’s a civil liberties issue that comes up, there’s an issue relating to police misconduct, I will take a public stand on that,” he said. “I’m not saying that Brendon necessarily has to go to that extent, but what’s important, though, is that he be the voice of his constituency. Speaking out on drones is exactly what he should be doing. He’s talking about, ‘Well, if you do this, this will be the legal and social consequences of that decision.'”

After being appointed by the board of supes last December, Woods immediately set out to revamp the way the public defender interacts with clients. One of his initiatives — the establishment of a Clean Slate program that helps clients on adult probation seal their criminal records — went into effect on April 8. Sitting in his office on the fourth floor of the Alameda County building on Lakeside Drive in Oakland, Woods said he would frequently overhear clerks speaking to clients who called in asking for help sealing their records. “Every time I heard one of our clerks say, ‘We can’t do that,’ it drove me crazy,” said Woods. “It’s a no-brainer for us.” Woods reassigned staff within the office to run the program.

One of his other main goals is to bring more resources to the office — whether it’s in the form of additional training, more staff, partnerships with other county and municipal agencies, the development of new programs, or the reorganization of his staff into specialized units. A whiteboard in his office lists the two dozen goals he’s set out for his first year in blue ink, and Woods has thrown himself into his work wholeheartedly, routinely answering emails past midnight. “I don’t sleep anymore,” he said, half-jokingly. “I’ve been all-in on this job.”

Woods also secured a prestigious training grant for his staff from the Bronx Defenders, an organization that represents indigent criminal defendants in New York City. The grant will provide for an exchange of ideas between the two offices, staff exchanges for training visits, and will lay the groundwork for a transition from pure legal representation to a holistic advocacy model used by the Bronx Defenders that’s geared toward getting clients services and job opportunities that take them out of the cycle of recidivism and poverty.

“I want us to focus on what happens after court,” Woods said. “We’re successful when we don’t see our clients again. They need help finding housing. They often need drug treatment. They need employment — far more than they do education. Once someone is working and gainfully employed, it brings about a sense of self-worth and importance.”

Woods also is establishing reforms that will affect the way public defenders interact with their clients, both in and out of the courtroom. Defense cases will be handled “vertically” — by one attorney — as opposed to the current practice of “horizontal” representation, in which different public defenders handle a case at different stages of court proceedings. Juvenile cases have already been overhauled to allow for vertical representation, which Woods believes will reduce the impression some clients have that they are being treated like just another number.

“There’s the potential for clients to feel like they’re going through an assembly line — one lawyer puts on the tires, one lawyer puts in the brakes, one lawyer puts in the upholstery — as opposed to one lawyer is taking care of me all the way through,” he said.

Social workers will be brought in to assist clients in need as part of the county’s realignment program, which shifts prison inmates from state to county supervision. Woods is also exploring possible diversion programs involving the offer of a job for participants as an enticement to not reoffend — though he concedes that this is a lofty goal. There are also plans to partner with the Alameda County Public Health Department and other service providers to connect defendants with support services.

Woods also is reorganizing the office to develop specialized units, much like those in the District Attorney’s Office. Woods said it won’t be a top-down reshuffling of assignments and personnel: He sent out a survey to his staff to find out which lawyers have specialized skills, interests, or backgrounds that may help with things like grant writing, coordinating with social workers, or interacting with the media — something his predecessor took pains to avoid.

One goal is to create a “homicide-plus” team of three or four attorneys who would handle up to eight homicides as well as other serious felonies. Woods also has plans for legislative and policy teams that would keep abreast of proposed laws and policies on the state and local level. District attorneys and police associations throughout California actively engage in lobbying in Sacramento, and Woods believes public defenders should also step up for their constituencies. “We need to be, as an office, more aware of legislation as it’s being developed and how it’s going to affect our clients,” he said.

Alameda County is a diverse, sprawling entity in which communities have divergent needs, and the Public Defender’s Office needs to have its finger on the pulse of the county, he added. The policy and legislative teams would fulfill that function, he said.

In a conversation about Woods’ proposals to reform his office, Adachi laid out three key ways for transitioning toward a holistic model of representation and advocacy for defendants: First and foremost is providing top-notch legal representation and ensuring that the office has sufficient funding and staff. Second, that staff has to be well trained, motivated, and evaluated to keep their performance high. And Adachi’s final key point is continuously engaging with the public. “You have to make sure the public understands what you do and why it’s important,” he said. “In Brendon’s case, he’s going to be a very good public face of the office. He sees that being the public defender is more than an office, it’s being part of the community.”

Despite the fact that Woods serves at the behest of the board of supervisors, he is nonetheless confident that he has its support. And he is determined to carry out his agenda and stand by his principles, even if it means clashing with others in county government and law enforcement.

“There’s no reason why I should change my thoughts or philosophy or who I am because I’m sitting in this office,” he said. “I’m just gonna be me, and whatever happens, happens.”

Correction: The original version of this story should have stated that each lawyer in the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office assigned to felony cases carries an average of 273 of them per year (not at a time), while attorneys responsible for misdemeanors oversee 353 cases annually (not at a time) on average.


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