On May 19 I attended the San Francisco Public Defender’s 2010 Justice Summit, at the SF Public Library. Jeff Adachi eloquently introduced a day of 3 panels, one Clara Foltz impersonator, a TV PSA, and free lunch. The PSA video was a startling, professionally-produced 15-second spot promoting the abstract concept of the public defender (“PD”).

The first panel, “Ordinary Injustice,” offered a scathing critique of every level of our criminal justice system. The title was taken from the book of the same name by Amy Bach, who spoke first and stole the show with firsthand stories of miscarriages of justice in rural courtrooms. She also noted that these problems affect everyone, not just those caught up in this system, because our tax dollars become the collateral consequences. Laurence Benner made the point that this injustice will inherently remain so long as local politicians are entrusted with funding our indigent defense system. Kenneth Tanaguchi, Fresno PD, mentioned thatjustice suffers in counties using contract defenders because of their innate conflict of interest: turning a profit will trump clients’ best interests when criminal defense services are auctioned. John Terzano, Justice Project ED, explained prosecutorial misconduct as a product of prosecutors’ discretion, lack of accountability, and entrenched culture. Sam Webby described his series of stories for the San Jose Mercury-News about the San Jose’s defendants going without representation at their first (and usually only) appearances, which led to a change in policy: now those courtrooms have lawyers in them everyday for the first time.

The second panel discussed PDs’ public relations problem: “Public pretender or public crusader?” Former prosecutor Jonathan Shapiro, now famous for The Practice and Boston Legal, started controversially by telling the audience of PDs to cut their ponytails, lose their earrings, and wear dark suits with white shirts and red ties. His main point was that PDs need more self-promotion, and collective national representation to educate the public on their purpose and worth. Jami Floyd of tv’s The Best Defense agreed that the media contributes to misperceptions of the PD’s role, because of the pro-prosecution bias in the assumption that defendants did something wrong (violating innocent-until-proven-guilty). A New Yorker, she argued that reforming draconian drug laws is the best issue to start with reshaping the PD’s image. Criminal defender Gerald Schwartzbach drew applause for, “You don’t fight crime by cutting social services,” and for, “Putting a black robe on a jackass doesn’t get you a judge,” and for, “The whole criminal defense bar, public and private, needs to circle the wagons” and unify to improve its reputation/image. Carol Dee Huneke of PD Revolution (pdrevolution.blogspot.com) pointed out that even though emotionality usually favors victims, occasionally it works for defenders, and then they ought to call the media.

The third panel focused on prisoner re-entry services, from the mixed viewpoints of service providers, former prisoners, and advocates. It was pretty depressing, as highlighted by Eliza Hersh of the East Bay Community Law Center’s Clean Slate program: “There’s not really such a thing as a ‘clean slate’ in California.”

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