Justice Reform Advocates Share Best Practices at NYU’s Brennan Center

The Community-Oriented Defender Network Conference 2013 at the Brennan Center at NYU.
The 2013 Community-Oriented Defender Network Conference at NYU’s Brennan Center

They come from large offices in major U.S. cities and small non-profits chugging along with just a few attorneys.  This collection of lawyers, social workers and advocates from across the country have one thing in common — they work to give the poorest people a fair shake in court and, just maybe, a chance at a better life.

That’s at the heart of the Community-Oriented Defender (COD) Network, a unit of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.  Each year, this self-proclaimed “tribe” of reform-minded advocates convene in New York City to share best-practices and inspire one another; the latter function, perhaps, is most important, as the fight to even the playing field for poor people facing criminal charges is frustrating, chronically underfunded and can often feel quixotic.

But this tribe doesn’t feel sorry for itself.  It hurts for the people it serves.  As one young attorney at the conference voiced, she gets to go home every night. Too many of her clients don’t.

Despite the injustices that the defenders of the COD Network battle on a daily basis, there is little despair.  In fact, they are filled with hope that some of the things they do will make it better.  Even if it’s just a little better.  And all of these advocates come to the Community Oriented Defender Network Conference with stories about how their efforts are making a difference.

Our office has been involved with the COD Network for years, and this year, we presented on a panel about the news media on how to share the complicated stories of our clients and the issues facing indigent defense systems.

Here’s just a taste of the good work brought to the 2013 conference from across the country:

The Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office is celebrating victory in a “Ban the Box” campaign.  The office worked with other community partners on a three-year effort to remove the box on job applications requiring candidates to check whether they had ever been convicted of a felony.  Businesses can still run criminal background checks after the first interview, but the removal of the box stops employers from immediately screening out applicants who have already served their time.  Ban the Box will become law January 1, 2014 when Rhode Island becomes the fourth state to enact this legislation.  Watch the video for the campaign. It was produced in partnership with the Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office.

The Miami-Dade Public Defender Office’s nearly five-year battle to limit the number of cases assigned to its counsel was finally affirmed by the Florida Supreme Court.  In this editorial, from the Tampa Bay Times, the Supreme Court’s May 2013 ruling is quoted as follows:

“trial courts can stop assigning public defenders to new cases when the Legislature has provided so little money that the result is overwhelming case loads.”

Miami-Dade Chief Public Defender, Carlos Martinez, told conference attendees that limiting the number of cases each attorney handles has resulted in better quality defense and improved outcomes for clients.

The Legal Aid Society Criminal Defense Practice of the Bronx reported on its efforts to help victims of sex trafficking convicted as prostitutes.  A New York law passed in  2010 recognized that children who perform sex for money are victims, not criminals.  And a vast number of women prosecuted for prostitution were forced onto this path as children.  The Legal Aid Society has worked to have past prostitution convictions vacated so that some of these women are eligible for employment.

Follow the Brennan Center on Twitter for more stories about justice reform.

You can also read this story about the training our office received earlier this year from Thomas Giovanni, the director of the Community-Oriented Defenders Network.