'Hammers Don't Work': Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods

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'Hammers Don't Work': Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods

'Hammers Don't Work': Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods

In this podcast recorded at the Courts, Community Engagement, and Innovative Practices in a Changing Landscape symposium held in Anaheim in December 2015, Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods discusses diversion and the importance of giving low-level offenders the opportunity to avoid a criminal record.

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RAPHAEL POPE-SUSSMAN: This is Raphael Pope-Sussman with the Center for Court Innovation. This podcast is part of a series of dispatches from the court's Community Engagement and Innovative Practices In a Changing Landscape symposium, held in Anaheim in December 2015. The conference focused on justice reforms, including recent developments in California, Public Safety Realignment, and Proposition 47.

Public Safety Realignment refers to changes brought about by 2011 legislation that shifted responsibility for certain populations of offenders from the state to the county level. Proposition 47, a ballot initiative passed by referendum in 2014, reclassified certain low-level felonies as misdemeanors. I hope you enjoy listening.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Hi, this is Raphael Pope-Sussman with the Center for Court Innovation. I'm sitting here with Brendon Woods, Chief Public Defender for Alameda County. Brendon, thank you for speaking with me today.

BRENDON WOODS: Sure. Thank you.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Can you talk a little bit about how your office works with the DA's office?

WOODS: Yeah, I guess it depends on what we're talking about with regards to working together. We collaborate on many issues. Probably our biggest one is our Clean Slate Program, where we collaborate together with regards to getting our clients' cases reduced to misdemeanors, or getting them dismissed completely off their record.

Another one of our big collaborations was, about a year and a half ago, two years ago, we started our Veterans Treatment Court. That took a real collaborative effort between the DA, public defense, and probation, sheriff's office, and the courts.That's really a great program we started.

POPE-SUSSMAN: How do you balance those partnerships with the need to obviously represent the interests of your clients?

WOODS: I think always at the forefront and at the very beginning is a zealous advocacy that never goes away, and that's always the case. Where we collaborate is where we can see there will be a benefit for our clients, but a lot of that collaboration takes place every day, takes place during pre-trial conferences, takes place with regards to resolving cases.

Once we get past that, and we know we're going to be litigating a case and trial, it's all about advocacy. Even with the collaboration it's all about advocacy. We're always putting our clients first.

POPE-SUSSMAN: How do you talk to your clients about opportunities for diversion?

WOODS: I think that's great. Any time we have a client where they can hopefully avoid having a criminal conviction on their record by completing a program, or doing some some sort of diversion, we completely advocate for that, because once you get that conviction on your record it turns into this horrible cycle. Once you get that conviction with probation, it turns into a horrible cycle, so if we can get our client some sort of diversion or treatment program, and they avoid having a felony record, it's critical.        

At least in Alameda County, probation is in some ways, I don't like to call it this, but a real set up, because once you go down that path, once you're on probation, you don't have the same rights you do as if you weren't. You have the search clauses. You don't have the right to a trial when you violate. It's just such a terrible downfall, so we really try to avoid that if we can, especially with a diversion opportunity.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Are there situations where there are options for maybe a low-level diversion as opposed to a few days in jail, where you might be concerned that the diversion opportunity is going to maybe be more onerous than the alternative, or that the alternative might be just that they're going to just let your client off entirely?  

WOODS: No, there aren't many diversion programs where I would say I'm concerned about that, but if there's a diversion program and they're talking about some sort of considerable amount of jail time if my client fails a diversion program then I'm not going to agree to that. That's a problem. We've got to stop going towards that model where if a client does not complete this program they will be hammered. Hammers don't work, especially now in the criminal justice system. They just don't work.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Do you think a lot of that comes from public fear?

WOODS: It's public fear, and it's the old school way of thinking, and we've got to stop thinking that way. It's all about rehabilitation and incentives, as opposed to hammers.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Where do public defenders fit into this national conversation about justice reform?

WOODS: I think it's incumbent upon us as public defenders to direct and drive the conversation, because we're the ones who are advocating and representing our clients. We should be the loudest voice at the table.

POPE-SUSSMAN: Have you seen particular changes after Prop 47 in California? How has it changed the way your office works, and the kinds of outcomes you're seeing for your clients?

WOODS: Primarily with my office, we do a lot of focus on Prop 47 with regards to the record remedies, and getting our clients into court, getting their cases reduced to misdemeanors, and getting them dismissed. That's the biggest spoke that we focus on right now. A lot of people talk about Prop 47, and it's going to add to the increasing crime, or putting all these dangerous criminals out, and that's just not the case.

That's not the case at all. I haven't seen any evidence of that. We're talking about low-level offenders who have drug possession being treated as misdemeanors, and then low-level theft offenses. That population should never have seen a prison in the first place.   

POPE-SUSSMAN: This is Raphael Pope-Sussman of the Center for Court Innovation, and I've been speaking with Brendon D. Woods, Chief Public Defender for Alameda County. For more information on the Center for Court Innovation, visit www.courtinnovation.org.

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