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Journal of the Institute for the Study of Legal Ethics

Publication Date

1-1-1999

Introduction

In recent years, scholars have raised critical questions about the role of public defenders. Some have critiqued the ways that defender offices function, and even openly questioned their continuing need. Still others have examined the visions of defender offices, suggesting that more coherence in their missions might ultimately serve their clients better in the future. But for all their variety, most have presumed that the compelling issues occur in the direct representation of clients. In limiting their sphere of analysis, though, they have ignored fundamental questions about an individual who centrally affects the offices' external policies and internal operations: the chief defender.

This is not at all surprising. In the last two decades, chief defenders have been locked into a narrow managerial role. Instead of actively par- ticipating in the development of criminal justice policy, chief defenders essentially have disengaged themselves from the public dialogue about crime. They have retreated into a holding pattern, absorbing rather than openly challenging reductions in their funding. Wedged between competing obligations to clients and funding authorities, chief defenders have narrowly defined their function as controlling the office's operations to stay within budget guidelines. In a profound sense, chief defenders seem to have lost their bearings.

To put the point differently, chief defenders need to break out of these bounded conceptions of their roles. For too long, they have isolated themselves and their offices from the center of activity on issues of crime. Sweeping changes in the welfare system and cuts in services to poor people throughout the country have weakened the social safety net for economically subordinated communities. Predictably, as the legal problems of poor people continue to mount, they will increasingly turn to public defender offices for help. Chief defenders, therefore, can no longer be content to preserve the status quo. They must re-imagine their roles if they intend to address the growing-and ever-changing-needs of their clients. By recognizing the power that accompanies collaboration and cooperation, they may be able at once to advance their clients' interests and shape policy in ways rarely tried by defender offices.

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