It is time. Effective September 15, 2017 I am stepping down as public advocate.
It has been a privilege for me to be a Kentucky public defender starting in 1976 and to be Kentucky’s public advocate since 2008. I never imagined that I would have such an opportunity to be a part of leading this statewide public defense system.
I am so very proud of the lawyers and staff of the Department of Public Advocacy who work each day to help people facing a loss of liberty or their life. Administrative assistants, investigators, alternative
sentencing workers are special professionals. You provide passionate professional service to clients under very heavy workloads, low salaries and many other challenges.
Likewise, I am very proud of DPA’s Leadership Team. Each is a dedicated servant in the public’s interest. No organization of the size and complexity of DPA can be effectively led without a team of leaders with multiple perspectives, talents and experiences.
I very much appreciate the support the Public Advocacy Commission, our governing body, has provided DPA to advance the professional independence of the work of the attorneys and staff representing individual clients. That independence is the national standard and is essential to the integrity of the criminal justice system and the proper ethical functioning of the statewide indigent defense system. The two Commission Chairs I have served under and each Commission Member have been exceptionally supportive of me as the public advocate, which has been essential for the department operating effectively. Importantly, the Kentucky Bar Association Board of Governors has continued to support a statewide system that has the resources to provide representation according to our Constitution and the KY Rules of Professional Conduct. And I have special appreciation for Jessie Luscher who has helped me for the last 9 years and who always works to make things better.
Over my nine years of leadership, I am proud of the progress made on a number of fronts through the work of many:
- DPA remains a well-run agency through the continuation of the administrative values advanced during Ernie Lewis’ administration: accountability, transparency, and cost-effective representation.
- The 2008 difficult but necessary litigation over inadequate funds and excessive workload ended with substantial additional funding being provided for the proven excessive workload.
- During a dramatic downturn in the economy and many budget reductions, DPA did not unravel. We met our responsibilities.
- The Lexington office’s transition, begun in 2007, from the Legal Aid nonprofit to a state office has been accomplished, providing increased staffing, client-centered leadership, professional office space, and advocacy focused on representing clients well.
- DPA is at first appearances, seeking the decision on appointment before the release ruling and then immediately advocating for the pretrial release of our clients. Because of this and changes in the law and a number of other advances, the pretrial release rate has increased by 10% statewide since 2011 while the public safety rate and failure to appear rate have stayed the same or improved, saving counties scores of millions of dollars. On September 16, 2013 the National Association of Pretrial Service Agencies’ John C. Hendricks Pioneer Award was presented to the DPA for the statewide public defender program’s strategic commitment to advance public defender pretrial release advocacy across KY.
- Our alternative sentencing worker program has been expanded to provide 45 ASWs who are presenting over 2200 plans a year with a stunning return of $5.66 for every $1 invested. This program is offsetting over $11 million in incarceration costs. It has proven public value. This nationally recognized initiative has received three awards, National Criminal Justice Association 2011 Outstanding Criminal Justice Program Award, Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation Top 25 Innovation in Government Award in 2013, the American Bar Association’s Section of State and Local Government Law 2017 Jefferson Fordham Society Accomplishment Award.
- Creation of six new defender offices (Newport, Nicholasville, Harlan, Shelbyville, Princeton, Georgetown) without any additional resources. This provides better service to clients and more timely resolution of cases.
- More professional office space in Lexington, Pikeville, Madisonville, Murray, London, Boone County, Owensboro, Morehead, and the central office in Frankfort.
- A laptop for every professional that works outside the office, VPN connections, a state of the art electronic case management system.
- Additional resources have been provided to the Louisville-Metro Public Defender Program to meet its crushing needs, increasing the number of attorneys from 58 to 72 and adding 6 alternative sentencing workers.
- There have been 5 exonerations since 2008.
- Funds were realigned to provide more leadership and resources for specialized capital litigation statewide. Since 2008, there have been many capital prosecutions with only one execution of a client who dropped his appeal and agreed to be executed, and there have only been five death sentences in Kentucky while 7 clients had their death sentences vacated.
- Reallocation of funds to increase resources for the education of staff to address the necessity of the constant turnover of staff and to meet the increased complexity and specialization of our work. We have the best defender education program in the nation. It has to be the best to meet the challenges of the new staff.
- Vigorous communication of criminal justice facts, including the facts that our crime rate and number of cases in the criminal justice system continue to decrease as incarceration increases.
- Development and presentation of robust, common sense criminal justice policy recommendations that would safely save the state and counties substantial funds.
- We fought to have post-conviction DNA testing and felony expungement in our state.
- We led the way in promoting the implementation of 2011’s HB 463 and 2015’s SB 20.
- DPA played a leading role in the creation of the National Association for Public Defense, which joined KY defender staff with a nation of PDs fighting for a voice on public policy, providing access to more quality webinars and engagement with a defender-led national organization.
- High level of involvement in national public defender organizations, NAPD, NACDL, NLADA, and the American Bar Association to access the best national thinking to bring to assist Kentucky’s problems.
- Case reviews have flourished with a spirit of helping others see what is needed to be done for their clients. We know very well that changing our behavior can change the outcome.
- Leadership has been a hallmark of DPA. We work with creativity, commitment, passion. We have high expectations and we hold each other accountable to representing clients well. We seize opportunities to access perspectives, go to the balcony, adapt. As we lead, we reach beyond the probable to the possible. Our intellectual capital is second to none.
On the other hand, over my nine years of leadership, I have regrets that are significant. Our workloads remain excessive. During my time, I tried to make progress with the assistance of the KBA on increasing the compensation of private attorneys doing conflict representation and increasing salaries for our staff in conjunction with prosecutors. State attorney salaries have not been increased in 16 years. Because of excessive workload and inadequate salaries, our turnover is enormous. Since I began as public advocate in 2008, 335 attorneys have left DPA. It does cost more to pay less because of this turnover. The system pays the price as resolution of cases are delayed. The flat fee rates being paid to private counsel doing conflict representation are clearly unconstitutionally low. I regret that there has been no progress on loan assistance, and we have only been able to move from 30 to 36 trial offices when there are 120 county attorney offices and 57 commonwealth’s attorney offices. We need to get to at least 57. In conjunction with the KBA, we are working harder to become more diverse but we have yet to make the needed progress.
Our responsibility is to protect people’s liberty vigorously. When I visit our offices statewide and talk to judges and other criminal justice leaders, my question has always been, Are our folks fighting hard for their clients. That is what we are here to do. People’s liberty is at stake. Too many of our clients are overcharged. Some are innocent. Many will not benefit from the length of sentences sought by prosecutors and imposed by judges.
I took over from Ernie Lewis who led DPA for 12 years. I worked with him for 28 years and for him for 8 years as deputy. He taught me that leadership was working with others to envision and shape a better future for our clients. There is no better leader to have followed. I have worked hard to provide passionate leadership focused on clients. Perhaps most importantly, I have been a partner with the Public Advocacy Commission in making sure that the representation provided by our staff is vigorous, professional and done independent of professional or political influence. This agency‘s mission is and remains client-centered.
Profound gratefulness is hard to articulate but it is what I feel in this moment for you.
There comes a time and the time for me is now….However, I am not done working for a more just Kentucky.