Nov. 7, 2022
Why 21st-century public defense needs to shake the foundation of its own leadership
When I became the head of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office in 2019, as with many city agencies, the department operated under a traditional hierarchy where the most power and responsibility sat at the top.
Public Defenders are notorious for taking on "the system." As those who challenge prosecutors, police, and inherent racism and classism in the criminal system, public defenders are agents of change seeking to rebalance the scales of justice and in some cases, re-imagine the system altogether.
When I became the head of the San Francisco Public Defender's Office in 2019, as with many city agencies, the department operated under a traditional hierarchy where the most power and responsibility sat at the top. And while so much had been accomplished under my friend and legendary predecessor, the late Jeff Adachi, I soon discovered that this type of leadership model wasn't going to be sustainable for the current moment.
We are at a time in history where people are protesting and addressing the issue of state-sponsored, racialized violence against vulnerable communities at a level we've never seen before. Even our staff, who already fight for some 25,000 members of San Francisco's most vulnerable communities, are feeling compelled to meet this new era with reinvigorated strategy and focus.
I knew that in order for us to be the most effective defenders and to meet and overcome the complex challenges of the criminal system, I needed to modernize our model of leadership.
When I started, it was just myself and the Chief Attorney alone at the top -- which meant being at the end of the line of all major decisions for our dynamic office, which currently includes 230 staff members across 18 units. Knowing that bottlenecks in decision-making can feel disempowering for staff on the frontlines and ultimately limit the impact of our work, in principle and in practice, that needed to change.
My vision was for our office to embody the values of our practice by centering the community. To do that, we needed a shared leadership team comprised of people who prioritize relationship-building. This team could deepen connections between the many units in our office, provide the structure to alleviate stress, maximize skill sets among our staff, and ultimately allow us to provide the highest level of representation for our indigent clients.
To do this, I wanted to involve our staff in the process to help guide our transformation. What became obvious is that we could not do it alone. So I reached out to Dr. Sayra Pinto of Moon Jaguar Strategies, who has a 30-year career devoted to helping organizations develop program structures that are efficient, effective, and transformative. Dr. Pinto's approach is also rooted in indigenous philosophies and governance practices, which aligned with our desire for a community-centered leadership structure rather than a top-down one. We held a series of office-wide strategizing sessions to brainstorm a new vision for our office.
By taking the time to go through this process, it became clear that we, public defenders, are part of, and parallel to, larger movements for social change and a more equal world. Dr. Pinto helped us articulate our missions, vision, values and theory of change. Three key missions we identified are: 1) defending our clients fiercely, 2) confronting state violence, and 3) advocating for community power. We also wanted a diverse internal structure that reflects the world we are striving to build, one that shares power and decision-making, centers our collective humanity, and supports each member of our all-star staff.
A leadership structure that reflects our missions
Once we had a vision for the shared leadership model that would help us fulfill our missions, we started assembling an amazing team to take on the new roles and be the pillars to anchor our new foundation.
As defense is at the core of our mandate, I knew that we needed a Chief of Defense with an unmistakable passion for serving our clients and a trusted track record of building community. The obvious pick was our most senior attorney, Patti Lee, whose decades of experience leading our Youth Defender Unit has made her a world-renowned authority on young people and the law. I chose Patti for her well-known relational talent so that we can harmonize the different parts of our defense structure to make the whole stronger. This has resulted in even more vigorous defense for our clients. Patti is also committed to the holistic, client- and family-centered defense approach that we are always striving to achieve.
In order to confront state violence and advocate for the types of laws, policies, and public investments that are going to transform the systems that harm our clients and communities, our team needed a leader whose strength is rooted in community organizing, coalition-building, and policy advocacy. Chief of Confront and Advocate, Angela Chan, spearheaded large scale campaigns to pass and implement local and statewide laws that separate law enforcement from assisting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with deportations. Having founded and led the Criminal Justice Reform Program at the Asian Law Caucus for over 15 years, she fully embraces the need to center community empowerment in our drive to dismantle harmful carceral systems and build healthier and more effective alternatives.
With the size and breadth of our office, one of the biggest jobs to fill was to have someone dedicated as our Chief of Staff. This needed to be someone with organizational acumen who could build community within the office in a meaningful way and who carries the values of diversity, equity and inclusivity that are needed to uplift one another. For this role, I approached Lyslynn Lacoste, the Executive Director of our youth-centered MAGIC programs, which facilitate opportunities for youth and families in the city's historically Black and increasingly diverse neighborhoods. She had been recognized formally for managerial excellence on multiple occasions by Jeff Adachi. Her ability to build positive relationships throughout the city gave me confidence both that our staff would be heard and supported, and that we could make progress toward the vision of a public law office that truly connects with the community's needs.
One of the most overlooked but truly necessary roles was to have a Chief of Operations who could oversee the many functions that our office depends on to do our jobs. Given the myriad of systems and needs in our office -- including developing data systems that track racial disparities in the criminal system and building case management systems that allow us to stay connected with our clients to provide timely services, such as our Clean Slate program -- we needed someone who could skillfully foster connections across our many units and keep a steady head while wearing many hats. For that, I enlisted longtime Deputy Public Defender Hadi Razzaq, who has adeptly managed a number of non-attorney units over his many years as an accomplished trial attorney.
The new leadership team complements our Chief Attorney Matt Gonzalez, who is a legendary trial attorney with over two decades of experience navigating the courts, politics, and media. He carried us through the storm with an ever-steady hand when we tragically lost Public Defender Jeff Adachi in 2019, and Matt continues to guide our trial attorneys and some of the biggest decisions we make as a leadership team.
Meaningful change takes dedication and time
Much like our ongoing efforts to chip away at the prison industrial complex through our advocacy inside and outside the courtroom, the changes in our office were not going to happen overnight. Indeed, we were not simply adding or assigning new managers, we were effectively dismantling a hierarchy that is still in place in most government agencies and corporate environments.
Just as certain reforms to our laws and legal system are not always readily accepted as moving society forward, some of the shifts within our department weren't going to make perfect sense to everyone at first. However, with patience, perseverance, and flexibility along the way, we began earning trust as we developed our new functions and flow.
The new structure is particularly important in order to build on and grow our office's many recent accomplishments:
We lobbied for and achieved unprecedented budget growth to help us defend our clients at the highest level.
We secured special funding for our groundbreaking Freedom Project, which has been using new statewide laws to free dozens of people who were either wrongly convicted or too harshly sentenced, and assist them with their transition back into the community.
We secured grant funding to triple the capacity of our Clean Slate Unit, which helps remove barriers to employment and educational opportunities for people who have completed probation.
We launched CopMonitor, an award-winning database of public records on local law enforcement that is designed to increase transparency for the public, for our defenders, and for the press.
We expanded the reach of our Immigration Unit by filing joint class action lawsuits with community organizations to protect the rights and health of immigrants who were detained in horrendous conditions during the COVID pandemic. We were able to reunite hundreds of families and won lasting protections for those who remain detained.
We drew on our experiences fighting for our clients' rights to press for numerous legislative changes. This includes passage of a state bill that placed a cap on probation terms that were leading to unnecessarily long restrictions on people who are striving to reintegrate and work in their communities, and a state bill that established a first-of-its-kind "Be the Jury" project to increase economic and racial diversity on our juries through a pilot program that removes financial barriers to jury service.
We launched The Adachi Project to honor the legacy of Jeff Adachi, who made documentary films to highlight stories of injustice. The Adachi Project uses film and the arts to reveal truth and demand justice by giving a voice to our clients and communities and shining a light on the many injustices they face.
We collaborated with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and Teachers for Social Justice to create the Young Defenders, a paid high school internship program so that students could gain exposure to the myriad of professions embedded in our office.
We've recently begun an End-the-Cycle program dedicating culturally-competent and multilingual social workers to connect clients with services when they first enter the system. Through this initiative, we plan to show how public defenders can be a vital force in public safety and community health.
As our office continues to grow and evolve, I am proud of the changes our full staff have enacted to dismantle leadership structures that no longer served us. Our focus now is sharper, and our fierce commitment to our clients and our communities has never wavered. In many ways, we're just getting started.
To find out more about how we're fulfilling our missions, subscribe to the San Francisco Public Defender's Office newsletter at https://tinyurl.com/SFPublicDefender and follow us on Twitter at @sfdefender.