“We educated, privileged lawyers have a professional and moral duty to represent the underrepresented in our society, to ensure that justice exists for all, both legal and economic justice.” Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
For the past three years, I have had the great privilege to serve as the one civil attorney on the board of directors of Alternate Defenders, Inc. (ADI) As I complete my term, I thought it important to share with others the good work of this valuable organization. ADI is a non-profit corporation that provides free representation to indigent criminal defendants for whom the Public Defender’s Office has a conflict of interest. Such conflicts exist where cases involve codefendants, or in which a victim or other witness is or was represented by the Public Defender. In these cases, the court must appoint a criminal defense attorney outside the Public Defender’s Office to represent that defendant. In these cases and in cases the Public Defender does not handle, such as misdemeanor appeals or Writs of Habeas Corpus, ADI provides the defense.
I have been impressed with the level of skill and experience of the ADI attorneys, all of whom are independent contractors dedicated to helping indigent clients. These attorneys work at rates much lower than those paid by their private clients. They not only work vigorously to defend their clients in court but often find solutions to the problems in their clients’ lives that brought them in contact with the justice system in the first place. Many ADI clients struggle with untreated substance abuse and mental health problems and ADI attorneys connect clients with services that are often a critical part of representation.
Whom Does ADI Serve?
ADI (and the Public Defender) exclusively serve indigent clients against whom criminal cases ranging from misdemeanors to capital offenses have been filed in the Marin County Superior Court. Most clients are residents of the county. Clients comprise the most fragile and rejected segments of our society, particularly the homeless and those afflicted with mental health conditions or debilitating addictions.
Are There Similar Organizations in Northern California?
Many of the Bay Area counties have organizations similar to ADI to assist the courts in appointing conflict counsel. What sets ADI apart is the additional oversight of ADI’s Peer Review Committee, a group of highly experienced criminal defense attorneys and judges who help to insure quality representation of our indigent defendants. The Peer Review Committee regularly evaluates new applicants to the panel and monitors attorney performance on an ongoing basis to provide competent counsel.
ADI also provides free continuing education to its panel attorneys in areas related to criminal defense such as cross-examination, jury selection, immigration, legal writing and new laws.
“The reason I choose to represent indigent defendants is simple. There but for the grace of God go I.” Elissa Lasserre
“There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.” Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black
How Was ADI Established?
Before ADI, local judges made appointments in conflict cases but it was time-consuming and difficult to manage the fair rotational basis to be in compliance the Penal Code requirements. Thus, a number of local criminal defense attorneys worked with the court to explore options and in 1996, local attorneys Michael Markowitz, Steve Berlin and Kim Druglick, created ADI. The organization would be a non-profit corporation responsible for assignment of counsel, payment of services and record keeping. One of the stated reasons the County and Court agreed to this option was to promote the strength and viability of Marin County’s local criminal defense bar.
Who runs ADI?
A board of directors and a small staff. By design, the board comprises ADI attorneys, a public defender, a private criminal attorney, a civil attorney and a retired judge, all who volunteer their time to manage this organization. Current members are: Juliana Weil (President), Gary Ragghianti, Retired Judge Michael Dufficy, Charles Dresow, Antonia Stainbrook, Thomas Master, and Paul Burglin.
ADI is currently administered by Director Mary Stearns, Assistant Director Tracy Barrett, and Cynthia Porter as Administrator.
“Our clients end up teaching us every day…when we listen.” Mary Stearns
“You don’t judge a society by how it treats the people on top because it’s easy to be nice to them. Look at how people on the bottom are treated and assess the collective degree of humanity.” John Rankin
How are Cases Assigned?
Cases are classified into panels according to the seriousness of the charges against each client. Each panel comprises attorneys qualified to handle those charges. All cases are assigned in rotation to appropriate attorneys and the Peer Review Committee reviews any attorney request to be moved up to a more serious panel.
“There’s a reason criminal defense attorneys are the happiest lawyers on the court floor. It’s incredibly rewarding work. We get to work on substantial constitutional issues and make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.” Tracy Barrett
What Changes Has ADI Seen?
Several ballot propositions have changed classifications of crimes and sentencing. A majority of Marin County voters joined in passing these laws, which mostly benefitted criminal defendants. In 2010, Proposition 36 passed, ameliorating some of the draconian effects of the Three Strikes Law. In 2014, Proposition 47 passed, changing the classification of less serious theft offenses and some drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Last year, Proposition 57 passed, revising the criteria for state parole and putting decisions whether to charge juveniles in adult court back in the hand of the judge. ADI provides excellent trainings to the panel attorneys to ensure the highest quality representation.
“For me, holding the government to its burden of proof is an act of patriotism.” Morgan Daly
“The right to counsel and the protections of our Constitution apply to the rich and the poor alike.” Charles Dresow
Over my three-year term, I have witnessed ADI consistently deliver high-quality legal services from respected criminal attorneys. ADI attorneys consider every case and client to be important regardless of the underlying charges and always strive to accomplish the best result for every client. Sometimes the best results go unnoticed by anyone but the clients themselves. Often clients receive drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health treatment or anger management therapy instead of incarceration—a win for the both clients and the county.
If you are interested in helping, attorneys may apply to be on the panels. Please call ADI at (415) 492-1039 and speak with Director Mary Stearns to request more information.