Piloting public defender representation at arraignment (a client’s first appearance in court).
Population of Alameda County: 1,610,921
Since 2012, Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods has led his agency to the forefront of holistic, community-oriented public defense representation, extending legal counsel to Alameda County residents before they come into contact with the criminal justice system and after they have returned from prison. By 2015, however, Alameda County – the home of Oakland, California – was the only large county in California in which judges and prosecutors were present at arraignment (when criminal charges are read), but defense counsel was not.
To get a snapshot of their pretrial justice system, the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office (ACPDO) reviewed misdemeanor arraignments that took place from January 1, 2014 to April 15, 2015. They found that 1,138 people were arraigned without a public defender, were held in jail, and were released a few days later, after a public defender entered the case. This means that close to 75 people every month unnecessarily lost a day or two of their lives, interrupting connections to family and work, because they were not adequately represented. Moreover, research suggests that even this short period of time in jail increases the likelihood of low-risk defendants committing future crimes.
ACPDO lawyers are representing clients at arraignment hearings on a pilot basis. ACPDO is also collaborating with Silicon Valley De-Bug, a Bay Area community organizing and media collective that has pioneered the model of “participatory defense,” which engages clients’ families and communities in their representation. De-Bug is distributing outreach materials designed to help families navigate the court process in the first 24 hours after a loved one is arrested in Alameda County.
Data Collection & Research
Impact Justice is an Oakland-based innovation and research center that explores original ideas for reducing incarceration and promoting more humane, responsive, and restorative justice systems. As ACPDO’s researcher partner, Impact Justice is measuring the effect that earlier representation by public defenders has had on Alameda County’s jail population and criminal case outcomes, as well as on the lives of the defenders’ clients. They are also surveying clients to determine the effect that this representation has had on their perceptions of the fairness of the justice system. Their two-year research project will be completed in 2017.