Passion for Justice

To Serve and Defend

The six USF Law alumni serving as chief public defenders in California are changing the system from the inside out.

by Annie Breen

USF School of Law has a well-deserved reputation for the number of alumni who serve as judges. What doesn’t get as much publicity is graduates’ leadership in public defense: USF Law produced six of the Golden State’s 48 chief public defenders — more than any other law school.

“We are so privileged to have such dedicated and inspiring leaders in this space,” said USF School of Law Dean Susan Freiwald, “and we are particularly gratified that they continue to engage with our students and our school, inspiring our students to follow in their footsteps of activism and commitment to social justice and positive change.”

How did USF School of Law produce such a high percentage of public defenders who rose to the top office? Why is it important that these alumni are helming the offices that represent those who stand accused of crimes ranging from misdemeanors to felonies? Six USF grads-turned-chief-public defenders reflect on how USF Law led them to their current offices, share their thoughts about a criminal justice system that overwhelmingly incarcerates people of color, and outline their goals of achieving holistic defense models as they work to correct that system. They also discuss the challenges of leading teams to avoid burnout and stay fresh and ready to battle another day.

An Uphill Battle

Scrappy underdogs. Overworked courtroom combatants. It used to be that the descriptions of public defenders conjured up images of exhausted Davids fighting uphill battles against the Goliaths in DA offices. And it’s true that even today, the vast majority of public defenders’ offices in California are operating on less than half the allotted budget of their district attorney counterparts. But public defenders do more than just represent their clients in court and during plea negotiations; today the job also entails obtaining comprehensive services for clients that can ultimately help them break the cycle of reoffending.

Molly O’Neal ’90 has spent her entire career at the County of Santa Clara Public Defender Office (SC PDO). “Once I took my first criminal law class at USF, I was hooked,” she said. “My goal from then on was to help the people who no one else was helping.” Inspired by a desire to help mitigate the injustices of systemic racism, Molly joined the SC PDO straight out of law school, tackling what she described as a steep learning curve that had her in court every day, handling five to 10 cases a session. “It was thrilling from day one. I was my clients’ voice in the court — the only one they had.”

Tipping the Scales

It’s a role she approaches with as much fervor more than three decades later, with a broader focus. As chief public defender, she relishes being able to consider the community context in which public defense operates. “Now that I’m not handling cases on a day-to-day basis, I’m making sure that my office has what it needs to get the job done. What getting the job done means to me, besides representation, is holistic defense.” O’Neal refers to the effort of public defense offices to treat the whole person by offering seamless access to services including immigration attorneys, social workers, housing agencies, addiction and mental health services, and more. According to her, it’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to doing what’s needed to tip the scales of the criminal law system back toward justice.

David Sutton ’08 echoes that sentiment. Recent Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA) data for Marin County saw Black people making up 18 percent of total drivers pulled over in traffic stops, despite comprising only 2.4 percent of the county’s population. He wants to change statistics like these.

The former Los Angeles trial chief for the federal public defender’s office was grateful for the opportunity to steward the office where he served as a first-year intern, citing his desire to give back both to the place that he said “raised him as an attorney” and to a community in need. Of course, that means securing the resources to do so.

“A big part of my job at the county level is making presentations, justifying the budget. You have to show people 1) what you do, and 2) how you do it, so that they can understand what you need in order to get it done.” Every dollar his office is allotted goes toward being better able to serve the clients who require its representation. Some of that helps to fund Marin County’s Clean Slate program, which connects people who need to clear their record or terminate their probation with the public defender’s office and also links them with Marin’s Department of Health and Human Services, to assist with public benefits ranging from Medi-Cal to COVID-19 vaccinations. “It’s about meeting people where they are, sometimes in the literal sense,” he said. That means considering clients’ most basic needs, like transportation to work and to meet the terms of their probation. “We have a grant-funded DMV liaison just to help clients get their licenses back. That could be the difference between them being sent back to jail or staying out of the system, because they didn’t have to violate probation.”

Joining Forces

What Martin Schwarz ’96, chief public defender of Orange County, calls the “inhumanity of the criminal justice system” is what drove his singularly focused path straight through law school. “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer who focused on social justice, and I tailored my law school courses specifically to become a public defender. Thanks to Sharon Meadows’ criminal law clinic, I was able to handle arraignments, motions, and hearings — getting that hands-on experience while still in law school just confirmed for me that I was heading in the right direction.” Having applied “all over” for sought-after public defender roles, he jumped at the first opportunity: Orange County. It’s where he’s been ever since, and it’s the office he helms today.

He faces unique challenges there. Orange County is a conservative zone, and that often means less favorable results for clients and fewer resources for the public defender’s office. But after almost 25 years in that office, Schwarz refuses to give up now. His goal is to expand the systems his office touches — partnering with the foster care system to reunite families, with the probate system to establish secure and beneficial conservatorships, and finding ways to partner with social services to implement quicker interventions for people who suffer from mental illness. Schwarz is realizing one of his goals right now: the establishment of a Recidivism Reduction Unit, composed of immigration lawyers, social workers, and paralegals all doing post-conviction work. It’s a joint effort with several other agencies because, as Schwartz noted, “Outcomes for clients are better if I can get other stakeholders in the criminal justice system on board. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: better outcomes that lead to reduced justice involvement.”

A Common Goal

Collaboration is also key for Sonoma County Chief Public Defender Brian Morris ’96. The attorney credits the many hands-on opportunities he had as a law student at USF — at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the Office of the Federal Public Defender, and teaching “street law” to high school students — with fueling his desire to represent those most in need. He strives to maintain a good relationship with both the county’s sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office, and recognizes that he’s fortunate to do so (mostly) successfully. At the same time, he faces the same challenges as his fellow alumni: an overrepresentation of people of color in the system and a budget disparity of less than half that of his office’s district attorney counterpart.

Like his colleagues, Morris is pursuing a comprehensive solution to his clients’ problems and notes, “We recently received a grant and hired our first social worker, a step on our path to achieving a holistic defense model and a continuum of care.” He went on to note that his bigger goal is “to get people the help they need — mental health, substance abuse, housing assistance, immigration services — to keep them from being caught in the criminal justice vortex.”

Community Presence

Escaping that vortex is what Brendon Woods ’96 wants for all his clients, too. Alameda County’s first Black chief public defender (and for too many years the only Black chief public defender in California) realized that he wanted to effect policy change as well as defend clients in court when he took office: “I became more politically active, more vocal, more strategic. It’s my job to be visible in both the community and on the political stage.” “I’d study the models of offices I thought were effective throughout the nation. They were being proactive,” Woods said. On his agenda was increasing staffing and resources, creating a Clean Slate Unit, and shifting the structure of his office’s representation from horizontal to vertical. “Horizontal means different attorneys at each stage of a case — it’s assembly-line justice,” Woods said. “Our goal was to be vertical, to have the same attorney take you from your arraignment through the trial and possible sentencing.”

His goal list is long. Woods would love to hire three times the number of current social workers, to expand his immigration unit, and hire incarcerated persons to work as peer mentors. Adding a prosecution, judicial, and police accountability unit is also essential. While he strives for those things, though, he’s appreciating one dream that recently became a reality.

The Alameda Public Defender’s Office is the first in California to sponsor a Partners for Justice cohort. The program selects recent college graduates and trains them as advocates who then work for two years in a host public defender’s office, supporting clients by connecting them with services and working with public defenders to reduce jail time and improve case outcomes. The program worked so well for Woods’ office that the fourth cohort began this past summer. “Anything we do to build our presence in the community serves our purpose.”

Fueled by Passion

Connection with her community is also what propels Siskiyou County Chief Public Defender Lael Kayfetz ’92. Something of a legal wunderkind, she was 19 when she started law school, the youngest-ever chief public defender in California, and is now the state’s longest-serving current chief public defender. Kayfetz is passionate about serving her clients, remarking that she “would rather go back to waiting tables than do any other kind of law.” Her attorneys, who she says can sometimes be found in thrift stores buying clothes for clients to wear in court, are just as fervent. “I’m lucky that everyone in my office is a cause person. You need to assess not just the alleged crime, but all the circumstances in their lives that brought them to that point.”

Like her colleagues, Kayfetz’s ambitions for her office center around connecting her clients with the services that combine to serve as a stay-out-of-jail safety net. She said, “I’d love there to be more collaboration between departments — for us all to work together in such a way that a client is more likely to get out of the system, rather than stay in it.” She acknowledges that not all clients come back through the system, though. “It’s the success stories that keep me going,” she said.

Fit for Battle

And “keeping going” is the name of the game for all public defenders. Each of USF’s six chiefs approaches the issue of burnout differently, but each recognizes it as an office priority.

“There was too much burnout in this profession — drinking, divorce, you name it,” said Molly O’Neal. She started a mindfulness group in her office called Wise Warrior, which is now an official program in the Office of the Santa Clara Public Defender.

Intense exercise is a common antidote to professional burnout, it seems. Brian Morris plays soccer and mountain bikes up to six days a week: “You can’t check emails when you’re riding.” Molly O’Neal swims, Brendon Woods hits the gym, and Lael Kayfetz skis, cycles, kayaks, and gardens to keep a sense of balance. “You have to seize the life you have as best you can.” Keeping themselves in the best shape possible, mentally and physically, is just another way the six chiefs serve their clients.

And that’s what their careers, lives even, have been based on: serving those unable to serve themselves. Dean Freiwald noted, “What chief public defenders do is central to the Jesuit values of providing for those most in need and to our work of addressing racism and inequality in society.” That work is far from over, something O’Neal, Sutton, Schwarz, Morris, Woods, and Kayfetz know all too well. But being up against the odds never stopped them. It’s why they joined the fight. Tellingly, when asked where they envision their careers going from here, to a person they responded that they were already in exactly the role they’d always wanted.