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Balancing the Scales of Justice

Brendon Woods, Alameda County's new public defender, is determined to raise the profile of his office and speak out on behalf of indigent defendants.



When Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern proposed to buy a drone earlier this year, his plan drew national attention and immediate condemnation from civil libertarians concerned about the increasing scope of the surveillance state nationwide. Ahern and his staff decided to argue their case for purchasing the drone at an Alameda County Board of Supervisors committee meeting in Oakland on February 14. It turned out to be one of the highest-profile public meetings in recent memory.

After several Bay Area civil rights lawyers — including Linda Lye of the ACLU of Northern California and Oakland attorney Michael Siegel — stated their opposition to Ahern's plan, county Supervisor Richard Valle made an unusual announcement: A county department head wanted to address the committee. Brendon Woods, who had recently been appointed to be the Alameda County Public Defender, stepped to the podium.

Woods drove right to the heart of the issue: the sheriff's desire to use the drone to investigate possible felonies and misdemeanors. "Alameda County has been a leader in justice and technology, and the intersection of the two," Woods said. "My request would be that we not be a leader on the forefront of technology that will infringe upon our civil liberties."

Woods' brief testimony went mostly unnoticed amid the spirited debate over the surveillance drone, but it represented a key moment in the recent history of the Alameda County Public Defender. Although the office is the second oldest in the country and one of the most respected in the state, the Alameda County Public Defender has remained on the sidelines of county politics and the raging debate over criminal justice and law enforcement that has engulfed Oakland and much of California.

The previous public defender, Diane Bellas, who ran the office for twelve years, rarely took stances on major issues, and her reticence to engage in public affairs represented a stark contrast to San Francisco County Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who takes very public positions on criminal justice matters and law enforcement misconduct.

But Woods is determined to change that. The first African-American public defender in Alameda County history is intent on reaching out to the public and engaging in policy issues in a manner that promises to reshape the local discourse on criminal justice, which often has been polarized between those who want police accountability and those who want more tough-on-crime measures.

Woods is also overhauling the Public Defender's Office's internal practices in ways that promise to not only strengthen the legal representation of indigent criminal defendants, but also provide them with meaningful services and opportunities aimed at reducing recidivism and getting them on the right track.

Woods, however, is taking a gamble with his ambitious agenda. Unlike Adachi, who is elected by San Francisco voters, Woods was appointed by county supervisors, and thus serves at their discretion. According to Adachi, this setup, which is common in California, has made public defenders reluctant to speak openly on criminal justice matters for fear of angering their bosses, who are often averse to controversy. "Many appointed public defenders feel constrained by the fact that they are appointed," Adachi noted, referring to conversations he has with his counterparts in other California counties.

County district attorneys, by contrast, typically hold elected positions, and thus have greater latitude to speak openly on issues and advocate on behalf of law enforcement. Not surprisingly, the public debate over criminal justice issues in California has traditionally been one-sided — tilted toward law-and-order and away from civil rights and civil liberties. Adachi noted that public defenders "are not on equal footing with the prosecutor ... and what that does is it gives a DA a bully pulpit to be able to talk about crime and reform."

But for the 42-year-old Woods, the desire to level the public policy playing field and give voice to the voiceless is also born from personal experience — from growing up black in America and being the victim of racial profiling. Those early-life episodes, in fact, helped steer him toward the legal profession nearly two decades ago, and toward becoming a public defender, representing those who can't afford to hire their own attorney.

And today, he's resolved to speak out on their behalf, not just in the courtroom, but also in the court of public opinion, even if it could eventually cost him his job. "I don't see myself as being quiet," Woods recently told me. "As a public defender, you're here to fight, so that's kind of inherent in the job. And sometimes you will just agree to disagree.

"Drones could have a major impact on our clients' civil liberties," he continued. "I felt I had to step up. I do believe Ahern when he says he won't spy on people in their backyards, but once we go down that road, where do we stop? Who's going to be the next sheriff, and will they have the same viewpoint?"

From a young age, Brendon D. Woods found himself leaning toward the law. Born in Jamaica, Queens to West Indian immigrants, he was raised by his mother and extended family. "My dad wasn't there," he said. "Let's say I'd probably represent him."

Woods and his mother moved several times after she joined the Navy, first to South Carolina, then to North Carolina and Virginia. And like innumerable African-American men, Woods had formative encounters with law enforcement that shaped his view of the criminal justice system. "There are certain things that happen to young black men that don't happen to people of other backgrounds in this country," he noted.