John Stuart, State Public Defender of Minnesota


John Stuart, State Public Defender of Minnesota

John Stuart, State Public Defender of Minnesota

In this interview, John Stuart, the state public defender of Minnesota, talks about leadership, collaboration, and innovation from the public defense perspective.

November 9, 2011

On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being not innovative at all to 5 being very innovative, how innovative do you think the criminal justice system is currently?

I would rate the criminal justice system at a two and a half, meaning not hopeless, but with significant room for improvement. Lately, we are seeing innovation in the criminal justice system for several reasons. One reason is that the state and local government budget crises have placed pressure on every agency to prioritize. Another reason is that we’re beginning to see the pay-off of rethinking the “tough on crime” rhetoric. Crime is down, mostly because people have been creative and have looked at promising approaches like drug courts and reentry services. The “evidence-based practices” movement is good because it is based on an underlying goal, reduction of recidivism; and it keeps records on what works. Lastly, I think technology has been driving innovation. As court systems move towards paperless processing, all of the relevant agencies have to come together to develop a coordinated technology strategy. Other reforms have followed.

Do you think there’s a different leadership profile in today’s criminal justice system than a decade ago?

Twenty five years ago, the self-image of public defenders was to be courtroom warriors. I never wanted to be a warrior exactly, but I knew my job was to line up a bunch of warriors and send them charging into battle. Now we’re embroiled in a lot of collaborations with other agencies at the big-picture level, such as prosecutors, the courts, and police. Leadership now demands that you get people to set aside the adversarial dealings that develop from handling cases for a moment and work together.  In the process you may be able to help a lot of clients at once.

The chief public defender in Los Angeles, Michael Judge, used to say “the chief public defender is a co-manager of the justice system, whether they like it or not.” I think we have to be thinking like that or risk having systems put into place we don’t want. For instance, we had a chief public defender in a county where they were building a new jail. I told him: “you’ve got to be involved in the planning of the new jail, even if you’d prefer not to work alongside the sheriff. Otherwise, things are going to happen that will be bad for your clients and your staff.” The person proceeded to only give it a half-hearted effort, and the jail was built without any interview rooms for the lawyers to talk to clients. My role as a leader is to influence people to think above and beyond the latest fight that they are having with their local county attorney.   For example, if they can create a good diversion program by working with the prosecutor, they are helping many clients get through the process with no records.

What has been challenging for you in this more collaborative approach to leadership?

The reality is that not everyone is on board with collaborating with adversaries. For example, I arrange a regular lunch meeting between my chief public defenders and the county attorney association’s board of directors and executive director to discuss opportunities for collaboration. A couple of my chief public defenders refuse to participate. I know that they’re doing good work in the court system at the local level, but I’ve told them: “We’ve fought hard for a place at this table. It’s important to show up.” But I pick my battles and let them skip these meetings, as long as that’s the extent of their avoidance of the issue. Something that could make matters much more difficult is if I worked in a state that allowed the death penalty. Collaboration would be a lot of harder if I thought the other folks were trying to kill my client.

How do you rally support for new initiatives among frontline staff?

I try to help create interesting big picture projects that are attractive to people. For instance, we have a private criminal defense lawyer who heads the Minnesota Association of Defense Lawyers, who is also a veteran and has been deeply concerned about post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve gotten him involved in going to the different public defender districts to train people about issues in representing veterans. This has built momentum to create veterans’ courts – a model that naturally draws people into collaboration because the judge and the prosecutor understand that veterans warrant special attention. Another innovative project that has gained a lot of support is an initiative to reduce drunk driving fatalities in northern Minnesota. The tribal court has collaborated with the state district court to create a Wellness Court for repeat drunk drivers on the reservation. Our lawyers there think that this is pretty interesting because they are seeing clients who used to do significant jail time that are now getting sober.  So far there are 42 graduates and no new offenses.

What do you think are the pros and cons of having been in office for twenty or more years?

The pros of being in office for this long is that I’ve developed long term relationships with people involved in the justice system. As I look at the map of the state, I know all the Chief Judges, I know most of the county prosecutors, and I have served on Task forces and committees and so on for 24 years with all these people. I know an awful lot of the legislators and by trying to have a consistent message based on client centered representation, they know what to expect when I show up. I think that this is useful.

The cons of having been in office for so long is that I’m of a different generation than the people who are working in the trial courts. I need to do a better job understanding the shared values of people who are not in my generation. I’m from the group of people that went to college in the 60s and was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement. I was an anti-war marcher and an activist. Naturally, I don’t have the same cultural values as a 35 year old lawyer. For example, I haven’t fully embraced the idea that I ought to be answering email 24/7. I’ve got a cell phone, but I sometimes don’t turn it on for a day or two because I need quiet time to think. On the radio this morning, I heard about a survey of college students saying that over 50% of them wouldn’t take a job where they couldn’t use Facebook and Twitter while they are at work. I’ve been at work for forty years and I still don’t use Facebook and Twitter, and I know I am missing something.

How have you navigated political pitfalls that could have impeded your efforts?

The best way to avoid political hot water is to keep engaging with people. Keep showing up.  You can find allies around issues like drug sentencing reform.  Legislators realize that we’re spending a lot of money keeping nonviolent drug offenders in prison. Politically, it’s hard for them to advocate letting people out.   I’ve been working on the Sentencing Commission to draft a proposal so the legislature doesn’t have to take as much heat for it. I am grateful for the support I get from the chief administrator of the State Board of Public Defense, who has a degree in Public Administration and was formerly the fiscal analyst for the Legislative Budget Committee. He advises me on how to communicate with the legislators. We are typically in each other’s office three times a day asking for opinions and advice.

Sometimes public defenders think “everybody hates us.”  Public defense leaders need to find the people who like us and work with them.  I hope we start enough Veterans’ Courts that the public defender is invited to speak at the VFW.  I hope the American Legion is telling the legislature that public defense is important.

What advice would you give to a young person who wants to pursue your line of work?

After my first year out of college, I taught in an inner-city school in north Philadelphia for five years. It was obvious that inner city young people needed good advocates. That’s why I went to law school. I was walking home one day past the juvenile detention center and a bunch of my students were in there and they hung their heads out the window and hollered, “John, get us out of here!”  I want to see people become public defenders after they have had some personal experience working with people who live in poverty. I would hope that this hypothetical young person would have a force like that in their professional life.  We have hired people who, before they were public defenders, worked in emergency rooms or volunteered in the Peace Corps:  people who want to help an individual but also see that the system has to be different.

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