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Community Oriented Defender Network | Winter 2010 Update

Update from the Community Oriented Defender Network on recent and upcoming activities.

Published: February 5, 2010

We are happy to bring you an update on the COD Network’s efforts in recent months.  We have been putting the messages from our summer 2009 conference into action as we work to enact data-tracking legislation in Massachusetts that aims to combat racial profiling and as we help to protect a COD program in Baltimore, Maryland from elimination.  In a welcome development, we have the support of the U.S. Department of Justice and a powerful spokesman for indigent defense and the ideals of the COD Network in Attorney General Eric Holder.  As we try to capitalize on this support and expand the movement, we have also been taking a critical look at the COD model itself and have developed a “Statement of Principles” that we hope can help guide COD programs’ daily work.


Attorney General Holder Speaks Out on Critical Need for Indigent Defense Reform

Eric Holder at the Brennan Legacy AwardsIn a powerful speech at the Brennan Center’s annual Brennan Legacy Awards Dinner, Attorney General Eric Holder recognized our criminal justice system’s failings that leave far too many defendants without effective counsel.  Calling for broad indigent defense reform, Attorney General Holder highlighted the need to fix the problems of public defenders’ crushing caseloads and chronic underfunding.

“If more Americans knew how some of their fellow citizens experience the criminal justice system, they would be shocked and angered,” the Attorney General said at the dinner on November 16th.  

The Attorney General remarked that indigent defense “is an issue of personal importance and national conscience.” As a judge, Attorney General Holder related that he had seen firsthand “how ill-equipped and unprepared defense counsel distort the entire system.”

Spelling out specific remedies, the Attorney General called for full engagement of partners at the federal, state and local levels. “As great as our criminal justice system is,” he said, “it is imperative that we significantly improve the quality of representation provided to the poor and powerless.” 

This is not the first time the Attorney General has spoken out on the need for indigent defense reform (read other of AG Holder’s statements on indigent defense). We are thrilled to see that the Department of Justice has taken up the issue with such vigor and that it will be convening a national conference on indigent defense reform in February.  The Brennan Center continues to work with the Department to turn these powerful statements into real reforms in criminal justice policy.

Legislation to Advance Data-Tracking on Racial Profiling (MA)

The Brennan Center has been working with COD member, the Committee for Public Council Services, as well as local advocates, to draft model legislation in Massachusetts that, if embraced by the legislature, would enable the state to make headway in addressing racial profiling.

The resulting state bill, HB 3482, an “Act Providing for the Collection of Data Relative to Traffic Stops,” would strengthen data-tracking legislation that is already on the books, but that is lacking in many ways and has seen inconsistent compliance.  Under current law, state and local police departments are required to collect demographic data on drivers for traffic stops, but only if a citation is issued. Police must also record whether a search is initiated as a result of the stop. 

Under the model legislation, law enforcement officers would be required to collect demographic tracking on all stops, not just those resulting in a citation.  Additionally, the legislation would require the newly-tracked data to be published and analyzed annually, which current law does not mandate.   The act also establishes a ban on racial profiling, with enumerated exceptions, authorizes disclosure of officer-specific data to persons charged with a criminal offense based on evidence or statements obtained as the result of a stop, and creates an advisory board structure to increase stakeholder input on law enforcement policies.  

On October 27th, the COD Network Director Melanca Clark submitted testimony before the Massachusetts General Court’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, calling for the passage of this much-needed advancement of the current law and citing data collection and analysis as necessary steps toward addressing racial and ethnic biases in law enforcement.

Defending the Office of the Neighborhood Defenders Northwest (MD)

The COD office of the Neighborhood Defenders Northwest in Baltimore, Maryland, along with the capital crimes and juvenile defense units, came under attack recently when a member of the three person Board of Trustees of the Maryland Public Defender called for its elimination.  The board member, T. Wray McCurdy, wanting to “refocus” the public defender’s office away from “holistic defense” and toward “effective representation,” stated that “[t]he effort to rehabilitate and life-assist individuals charged and convicted with crimes is not a duty or responsibility of the [office of the Public Defender].”

Testifying before the Maryland Senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee on October 27th, Melanca Clark explained that the goals of “holistic defense” and “effective representation” are not in conflict, and that the value of the COD model is in enabling defenders to engage in more effective representation and in work to improve the administration of justice and break the cycle of re-arrest and incarceration.

In December, Montgomery County Public Defender and COD member, Paul B. DeWolfe was named as the new state public defender, replacing former chief Nancy Foster who was removed by the Board of Trustees.  To date, no plans have been announced by Mr. DeWolfe to dismantle Neighborhood Defenders Northwest or any other defender unit.

2009 Conference Overview

COD ConferenceIn July of 2009, the Community Oriented Defender (COD) Network convened its annual training conference in New York City.  The two-day meeting, which was attended by over 50 attorneys and other staff from more than 20 public defense programs, focused on ways to strengthen the COD model in order to improve the lives of clients, families and communities. Conference materials and panel summaries are available here.


COD Statement of Principles

As the Community Oriented Defender Network (COD) movement grows, and as COD programs achieve particular successes, it is important that we take time to consider what has been accomplished and to refine our mission and goals. The Brennan Center has been working with its “COD advisory group” to develop a “Statement of Principles” for members of the COD Network – a set of principles that we hope your offices will find valuable as a guiding document for your work.

We look forward to publishing a report this spring that will illustrate the principles of the COD model by providing examples of defender organizations engaged in innovative work.

If you have not already done so, please take a moment to review the Principles, confirm your membership in the COD Network, and describe your COD-related work.

Racial Justice Projects

Through the support of our funders, we have a new opportunity to partner with a COD member organization advocating for racial justice in its jurisdiction.  To identify an initiative and a program to carry this work forward, the Brennan Center has issued a “request for proposals” from the COD Network.  If you are interested in developing and implementing a project focused on addressing racial disparity, please submit a short concept paper.

Find more details on our website.

Upcoming DOJ Symposium – National Symposium on Indigent Defense

COD Director Melanca Clark, along with Chief Judge Lee Satterfield of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, and Robin Steinberg, Founding Director of the Bronx Defenders, will be participants together on a panel titled, The Evolving Role of the Public Defender, at the Department of Justice’s National Symposium on Indigent Defense to be held in Washington D.C. from February 18–19. 

This will be the first symposium focused on indigent defense held by the Department of Justice since 1999. The event is intended to “bring together delegations of defenders, key policymakers, and practitioners from state and local criminal and juvenile justice systems across the country to explore ways in which the indigent defense community can effectively forge alliances, build and strengthen innovative partnerships, and otherwise collaborate in ways that enhance indigent defense services for adults and juveniles.”1

The panel is scheduled for Thursday, February 18th, at 10:45am.   

We hope to see you there.

Hurrell-HarringBrennan Center Files Amicus Brief on Behalf of Former Prosecutors in Hurrell-Harring Case

On February 5th, the Brennan Center filed an amicus brief on behalf of 62 former New York prosecutors (federal and state) including former Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, in Hurrell-Harring v. New York State.

The case involves an appeal from the dismissal of a complaint brought by 20 indigent criminal defendants, represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, alleging that the defects in the defense system in New York create an unacceptably high probability that defendants will be denied their constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.  

While the New York Supreme Court (Albany County) denied the State’s motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim, in a 3 to 2 decision the Appellate Division, Third Department, reversed, holding that the plaintiffs’ claims were not justiciable. The case is scheduled to be argued before the Court of Appeals on March 23rd. 

In the Brennan Center’s amicus brief, former prosecutors address the importance of the defense function from the perspective of prosecutors.  They argue that the judiciary has plain authority to enforce constitutional rights and that the basis for judicial intervention is particularly strong when systemic deficiencies threaten the capacity of the courts to render justice in criminal proceedings and threaten the integrity of the judicial system as a whole.

1 Department of Justice Conference Materials