In California, the public discourse on criminal justice issues has historically been unbalanced: tilted toward law and order and away from civil rights. Part of the problem is that county public defenders — who represent criminal defendants who can't afford to hire their own attorney — are appointed to their jobs, rather than elected, and so are reluctant to take public stands on controversial topics for fear of angering their bosses. District attorneys, by contrast, are elected by voters and are expected to advocate publicly on behalf of law enforcement — and against the rights of the accused. But Brendon Woods, Alameda County's new public defender, intends to change that dynamic. Since he was appointed last December, the first African-American public defender in county history is already using his office as a bully pulpit, advocating on behalf of indigent defendants and attempting to bring balance to public-policy debates. Woods' desire to speak out for the rights of poor people accused of crimes (often black and Latino young men) is also a personal matter: He was repeatedly victimized by racial profiling as a youth.
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