An Interview with Paul DeWolfe
I was hired as a young public defender in 1981. Thirty five years later, I have represented clients in virtually every type of case the office handles, misdemeanors, felony, juvenile, capital murder, post conviction, termination of parental rights, abuse and neglect and child support. I have been a staff attorney, assigned counsel, contract attorney, manager and leader.
NAPD: What led you to move from trial work into leadership?
After ten years in private practice in the nineties, I came back to the public defender's office in a leadership role as District Public Defender in Montgomery County, Maryland heading up the office of 33 lawyers and 30 staff for which I worked in the 1980's. In 2009 I was appointed Public Defender for Maryland, the fourth attorney to hold that office in the 43 year history of the agency. After 16 years in a leadership position, I still miss the daily contact with clients and the practice as a trial lawyer. However, I've grown to love my role as the leader of OPD Maryland which is the largest law firm in Maryland.
NAPD: Tell us about the Maryland public defense system?
OPD Maryland is a statewide system of 570 lawyers and almost 1000 total staff. The office is divided into 12 districts representing urban, suburban and rural districts in Maryland. Statewide Divisions include Appellate, Post Conviction Defenders, Child in Need Of Assistance (CINA) and Mental Health (involuntary commitment). Our Litigation Support Unit assists trial lawyers throughout the state in forensic sciences, mental health defenses, investigations, social work services and complex criminal litigation.
Our post-Padilla immigration program advises trial lawyers on the immigration consequences of criminal convictions.
NAPD: What are your top priorities as Maryland Public Defender?
My top priorities have been building a strong statewide leadership team, recruiting, training and retaining top talent and integrating our core values into all our work. Those core values are: Tenacious Advocacy, Client-Centered Representation, Culture of Excellence, and United in Our Mission.
NAPD: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
If there is one central principal I have learned in the past 16 years, it is that strong leadership is critical to success. So I guess my philosophy on leadership is to hire strong, confident leaders and spend the necessary time in planning and team building to mold them into a cohesive leadership team.
NAPD: What is your organization's greatest strength?
Our lawyers and our staff are our greatest strength. This can be exhausting and traumatizing work. I am so proud of the men and women of this agency who work under difficult conditions, with limited resources, sometimes in a hostile criminal justice environment. We have had considerable success in areas such as cutting- edge forensic issues and ending juvenile shackling in courtrooms. Our Appellate and Post Conviction units are well-respected and have experienced considerable success. Maryland ended the death penalty in 2013. However it came about as a direct result of the tenacious litigation of our trial and appellate lawyers. When the legislature finally passed the abolition bill, it had been more than 10 years since a Maryland jury had imposed a death sentence. Moreover, our Appellate Division had a 80% reversal rate in death penalty cases.
NAPD: What are your organization's biggest barriers?
As is true of most indigent defense systems, OPD Maryland is under-funded and under-resourced. This, of course, limits our ability to represent our clients effectively.
NAPD: Are there problems with caseloads in Maryland?
Yes! In 2005, OPD, in collaboration with the Center for State Courts, conducted a workload study and published caseload standards. Our caseloads measured against standards are excessive in nearly all districts and divisions and in nearly all areas of law including misdemeanors, felony, juvenile cases. We use these standards to advocate for additional resources and to allocate current resources. We are working to reduce caseloads by advocating for decriminalization of minor offenses and increasing the use of citations and fines in lieu of jail and prison sentences. However without budget increases to hire additional lawyers, the goal of reducing caseloads to standards remains illusory.
NAPD: What problems with predatory practices (jailing for failing to pay fines and fees) do you have in your area?
The criminal justice system discriminates against poor people in so many ways, not the least of which are the fines and fees associated with everything from pretrial release, money bail, parole and probation, mandatory drug treatment fees, mental health treatment fees and child support. Too many clients end up in jail simply because they cannot pay fines and fees imposed on them by the system. These sentencing decisions perpetuate a cycle of poverty from which clients may never emerge.
NAPD: What progress have you made with pretrial release reform?
Money bail still dominates the landscape in pretrial release in Maryland. Baltimore defendants face some of the highest bail amounts in the country. The predatory bail bond industry is firmly entrenched in Maryland. That said, reform is inevitable as public defenders, community groups and the media consistently shed light on the shameful disparity between the treatment of poor people as opposed to those who can buy their freedom by posting money or paying a bondsman.
NAPD: How do you maintain relations with the client community?
Our attorneys have organized many community events focusing on expungements, feeding the poor, collecting and distributing backpacks with school supplies and conducting “know your rights” events. We are working with Raj Jayadev on setting up a “participatory defense” model in one of our Baltimore neighborhoods.
NAPD: Talk about the effects on your organization of the death of Freddie Gray and the aftermath?
I am very proud of the spontaneous reaction of our attorneys and leaders during the uprising following the death of Freddy Gray. When the Governor closed the courts and suspended the 24 hour presentment rule and over 300 people were arrested, our attorneys went to work demanding the courts remain open for bail reviews and filed over 90+ habeas petitions for individuals who were detained without charges. Lawyers in Baltimore City and others from across the state participated. This joint action resulted in over 100 arrestees being released before the courts even reopened.
NAPD: Tell us about your efforts to improve diversity in your organization?
I have appointed our Director of Leadership and Social Work Services, Lori James Townes to lead a diversity committee. She has organized meetings and events and is partnering with diversity committees in other organizations to educate our leaders and employees on this important issue.
NAPD: How do you ensure that professional development occurs?
In 2012 we partnered with Gideon's Promise, a nationally recognized training and development non-profit organization. Jonathan Rapping, GP's Founder and President, came to Maryland and over the past several years helped us develop an attorney and staff training program using the GP model. OPD's Training Division sponsors programs throughout the year including a three day annual conference. Our Training Director, Patrice Fulcher, a veteran of the Gideon's Promise program leads the professional development of all our staff.
NAPD: How do you communicate with the criminal justice system in your jurisdiction?
OPD has a legislative team that advocates on issues that affect our clients and our agency during the three month legislative session in Annapolis. Our attorneys and leaders serve on various Criminal Justice Coordinating Commissions and other criminal justice committees throughout the state.
NAPD: In 4 years, how do you want people to describe your organization?
We would like to be viewed as a client-centered law firm that provides superior representation at all levels of the criminal justice system.
NAPD: How do you maintain work/life balance?
I try to start each day with a bike ride around Baltimore Harbor. I enjoy taking and printing photographs.
NAPD: What else do you want your fellow defenders to know about you and your organization?
OPD Maryland is proud to be an organizational member of NAPD. This national organization represents the voice of more than 13,000 members of public defense organizations across the country. We can learn from the experiences of our fellow public defender employees. Additionally we are stronger as an organization when we combine forces with others who are facing the significant challenges of working in a criminal justice system that is often hostile toward our mission.