Paul DeWolfe, Maryland Public Defender, Maryland Office of the Public Defender

Interviews

Paul DeWolfe, Maryland Public Defender, Maryland Office of the Public Defender

Paul DeWolfe, Maryland Public Defender, Maryland Office of the Public Defender

Emily Gold of the Center for Court Innovation spoke with Paul DeWolfe on his transition into the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and the role that strategic planning has played in shaping his vision for the office.

How innovative do you think the criminal justice system is?
I think it’s not terribly innovative. I think these are difficult economic times in which all parties are struggling with budget cuts and resource depletion issues that make it hard to innovate and go in new directions. Having said that, I personally believe that in times of economic crisis, there’s a particular need to be more innovative so that we can make the most of the resources we have. We have to get creative and strategic. Specifically, I think so much more can be done to protect public safety while reducing the number of people who are brought into court and incarcerated. Attorney caseloads, court dockets, and incarceration rates in this country are all staggering. A lot can be done to reduce those numbers.

How do you define success as the leader of a public defender agency?
Success would be reduced caseloads. Our caseloads are shockingly high and beyond any reasonable standard. As a result, our attorneys find it more and more difficult to be effective advocates for their clients. I think decriminalization of some minor conduct will go a long way. Maryland recently made driving without a license an incarcerable offense, whereas it used to be a ticket. That change alone has increased our caseload many-fold. Reversing that change would bring some relief. Further reduction could come from decriminalizing criminal trespass or possession of small levels of marijuana, as many states have done. In my opinion, these crimes don’t really impact public safety and yet they tremendously over-burden the courts.

How do you know when you’ve reached a point where you don’t have enough resources to provide meaningful representation?
We’re approaching that line closer and closer every year. Developing a strategic plan that helps us track caseloads and develop priorities to allocate resources appropriately has been a huge help. When I started about two years ago, we applied for strategic planning funding and we just completed that process. The goal of the plan is to give us an opportunity to refine our mission and spend our time and resources in pursuit of that mission. Fortunately, we received an additional grant from the Justice Department to begin implementation in each of our 12 districts statewide.

Is strategic planning a new trend that you’ve noticed among criminal justice agencies?
I’m not sure if it’s a new trend, but I think it’s something that a lot of agencies are looking at right now. It’s important to look at your culture and get back to basics. What’s your mission? How does what you’re doing measure up against what you value? We developed our strategic plan with the cooperation and participation of everyone in the agency. It began with an agency-wide survey, focus groups, interviews, and retreats. We identified some areas of focus, such as building a culture of excellence, creating a positive work environment, and improving information technology. It’s energizing and invigorating. I would recommend the process to anyone.

In developing strategic partnerships with other agencies, do public defenders face unique philosophical barriers to collaboration?
Not really. I think there’s some internal resistance to the notion that public defenders should provide services beyond representation in court, but as we move more in that direction, our attorneys are seeing the value of partnering with complementary services, like social work and law schools. I think collaboration brings power, particularly among groups with a common mission. The public defender office actually has some things in common with the prosecutor’s office and certainly with social service providers, and we have things in common with law schools and schools of social work. The public defender’s office could be a virtual laboratory for clinical programs. For example, we have used partnerships to address issues resulting from Padilla, a Supreme Court case requiring criminal defense lawyers to give accurate advice to clients about the immigration implications of criminal convictions. Rather than expecting our attorneys to become experts in immigration law, which is a very complicated area, we have partnered with a clinical program at the University of Maryland Law School to simultaneously give experience to law students while also better serving our clients.

You came into office in Maryland on the heels of your predecessor being fired. How did that influence the initial steps you took in office?
Taking over under those circumstances is a huge challenge because the team that’s left behind is traumatized and anxious about what direction the new leader is going to take the agency. That’s why I think the focus on strategic planning was so centering for me when I came in. I set out to create a leadership team around trying to build a common vision. One by-product of the strategic planning process was the formation of a senior management steering committee. We had high-level people putting in hundreds of hours, collaborating, to reach a common vision. The result has been a leadership team that works really well together. We then had a model we could spread across the rest of the agency, asking mid-level managers to go through a similar process of analyzing the work being done in their division and develop a similar planning protocol. It takes time and a lot of work, but it’s a good model for leadership and was good in uniting our team in a time of transition.

What types of qualities do you look for in your senior staff?
Most of the people on my senior management team are career public defenders with years of experience, but it’s a diverse group from diverse backgrounds. We have trial lawyers, forensic specialists, and trainers, as well as people from the legislative advocacy world. We’ve also expanded to include some non-lawyers, such as a director of social work. She’s an example of someone with high-level experience, not only in litigation support and training, but also has taught in schools of social work and can train young social workers. So generally, when looking for someone to add to my senior management team, I value diversity of background and look for smart people who are dedicated to the work.

When transitioning into a new organization, how do you handle existing employees from the last administration who are no longer a good fit?
When I came to my current role, we had to move some people. Again, a lot of this was spurred by the strategic planning process which called for the overhaul of some of our units, such as the juvenile unit in Baltimore City, which took on a new focus of aggressive litigation and advocacy. Across the board, we focused on one division at a time and looked for the folks who stepped up and had the right qualities. Once the leadership positions are established, then some of the remaining staff can stay and others have to be replaced.

In addition to your current role, you have also managed offices in smaller jurisdictions. What are the differences in managing a statewide agency of 850 staff versus a county office?
The personnel issues are surprisingly similar; they’re simply played out on a larger scale in a larger office. The new issues I had to learn about when I started working at the state level were budget issues and how to hire and fire staff. You can draw upon the experiences in a smaller agency, but there, we didn’t have the same budget responsibilities. Here, I’ve really focused on building alliances outside of the agency with the people who directly affect the work we do—those who control our budget, write the laws, and interact with our attorneys in court every day. You can’t expect people to bend to your will unless there’s support you can draw upon, and I think we’re finally making some progress. It’s challenging in a time when virtually everyone is feeling the pain of diminished pay and resources, but it’s worth the effort. 

How common is staff burnout and how can it be prevented?
Burnout happens all the time in this business. It’s probably the number one challenge in a public defender’s office because the really good people will always have options for other work, while the underperforming people will be satisfied and happy to stay. When you project that trend over time, you can see how it can become a bad situation. Just recently, I spoke to one of our attorneys who is a real star, but she’s resigning because of the huge caseload. It’s a tragedy because it’s not good for her career—she could have benefited from several more years in the public defender’s office before moving on to private practice. And our office certainly would have benefited because she was dedicated, hard-working, and skilled. But I understand it. I think leaders can help to avoid burnout among their staff by doing the best you can to impress upon mid-level managers the importance of rewarding people and supporting them when caseloads get high. The benefit of these times is that there’s a talent pool of smart, committed people who want nothing more than to do the important work we do. And they’re willing to put in the long hours and get the experience because they love it.

Do you foresee any changing leadership trends in the upcoming years?
I wish I were that much of a visionary. It changes all the time. I’m excited about the young people who are coming into our office across the state. They are really fired up with great ideas and new ways of doing things. We have a couple of attorneys in the city that are holding evening clinics for people who need help getting criminal charges expunged. We have another attorney who has built a community garden in the neighborhood where the office is located as a way of connecting with the community. Overall, there’s a trend towards viewing our clients in a more comprehensive way—their housing issues, mental health issues, etc. If we help them address those concerns, we might actually be able to break the cycle. The young people in the office are particularly enthusiastic about that new focus, so I would assume that will continue to be a trend as those young people start assuming leadership positions.

What advice would you give to a young professional who wants to pursue your career path?
It’s been a great career. It can be a rewarding life to be in service to people who are poor and may not have a strong voice and need to be looked at with dignity. And along the way, I’ve been able to learn some valuable leadership and management skills. I would recommend it to anybody.

November 2011

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