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Advocates in the community

Public defender’s office to start pilot program in Edgewood

(Published February 28, 2000)


Staff Writer

Taking a page out of a successful pilot project that turned into the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s citywide Community Prosecution Program, the Public Defender Service is preparing to launch its Community Defense Project by early April from a Northeast Washington site.

When it opens this spring, the office for the Community Defense Project will be located on the second floor of the Rhode Island Avenue Shopping Center in the Edgewood neighborhood and will be staffed by 13 people – including lawyers and a social worker.

"We have a good reputation in the legal community, but we’re downtown," said Christian Lamar, who will serve as one of the two lead attorneys in the office. "We want to be a neighbor" to the people we represent, he said.

The attorneys in the new office will work primarily with residents from the Fifth Police District, and officials at the agency have started assigning 5D cases to lawyers who are going to be involved in the project, said Joanne Wallace, who served her last day as director of the agency on Feb. 25.

The Fifth District, which has boundaries similar to Ward 5, "is uniquely positioned with a good mix of residential and public housing, and businesses," making it a good choice for basing the pilot project, Lamar said.

Lamar said that through the project he wants people to learn the kind of work the defenders do and he wants to dispel a commonly held misconception that defense attorneys are incompetent and don’t fight for their clients.

The Washington Public Defender Service is renowned for being a model of what a public defender system should be, Lamar said.

"If we’re successful (with the pilot program), we’ll be looked at as a national model," he said.

The office also will house a community outreach coordinator in an attempt to build "public trust and understanding in the criminal justice system," Wallace said.

Staffers will hold community education classes regularly to inform residents of their rights and responsibilities in relation to the criminal justice system and will speak to community and school groups – two things that the agency does only occasionally now because of demanding trial schedules.

The agency is considering forming partnerships with Edgewood’s Community Preservation Development Corp. and with the District of Columbia mediation service.

"The criminal justice system can’t solve all problems," Wallace said. "So it’s important for the community to have a say and resolve issues when appropriate."

Getting at "the causes of life problems," Wallace said, is also a primary goal.

In preparation for their move to Edgewood, Lamar and Claudia Crichlow, who will be the other lead attorney in the office, have been attending public safety task force meetings at Edgewood Terrace, a public housing project in the neighborhood, to become more aware of the community and its concerns.

"We want to be able to provide services and be role models to young folks," Lamar said.

The agency hopes to show that its program is also cost-effective by training community volunteers in techniques for resolving disputes and mediating so they can reduce the number of cases that go to trial, Wallace said.

In 1996, the U.S. Attorney’s Office began its Community Prosecution Pilot Project in 5D and has since expanded it to all seven of the city’s police districts.

Non-lawyer community outreach specialists act as liaisons between attorneys and police and "try to be our presence in the district," said Cliff Keenan, outgoing chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Community Prosecution Program.

The outreach specialists act as an extension of the U.S. Attorney’s Office at various community meetings and track arrests that occur within their district.

As a result, Keenan said "people have a better sense of the role we all play in the criminal justice system."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator