As I approach my one-year anniversary as the Chief Public Defender for the State of Connecticut, I look back in awe and pride! This first year has been challenging. This first year has shown me the true meaning of perseverance, persistence, and hope.
As chief, I am statutorily bound to (among other things), “administer, coordinate and control the operations of public defender services and be responsible for the overall supervision and direction of all personnel, offices, divisions and facilities of the Division of Public Defender Services.”
I don’t take my statutory responsibilities lightly. Throughout this year, all decisions were carefully mulled over to ensure continuity and excellent service to the communities we serve.
Public defenders engage in forward-facing, client-centered, work daily. Whether one works in the field offices, is a part of the support staff, or is in a specialty unit, the emphasis is always on the clients and their families. During and after the height of the pandemic, our agency continued to provide excellent service. As the world slowly returns to a Pre-COVID state, our agency has revamped ideas to promote wellness, increase morale, become more inclusive, and become more visible and accessible in the communities we serve.
Our agency used to have annual meetings at Holiday Hill in Prospect for all employees. In 2007, the cost was $12,075 with no speaker or educational component. In 2008, the cost was $13,199 which included a performance at a cost of $574. These meetings were well attended and provided an outlet to regroup, reconnect, and recharge. The agency shifted to other ways to have meetings throughout the years.
In 2021, the annual meeting was held virtually for $10,064.08; the speaker cost $5,000 with additional costs of $5,064. In 2023, we returned to Holiday Hill. More than a decade later, inflation contributed to an increased cost. The annual meeting was $22,561. There were two speakers for an additional cost with an educational component: one for $250 and another for $8,000.
In 2021 our agency moved from Trinity Street to Farmington Avenue in Hartford. Though the Department of Administrative Services paid most of our expenses to move and configure the space, we paid an additional cost of $86,064 for wiring, panels, furniture, and reconfiguration. In 2023, as I settled into the Farmington Avenue space, I observed the congestion and limited accessibility. We paid an additional $53,321 to gain ease of access, address ergonomic issues, make better use of some areas as we adjust back to life after the height of COVID, and become compliant with the Association of Disability Act accommodations for employees.
In 2017, my predecessor took the helm of the agency and under her leadership new initiatives began such as discussions and workshops on and about race like “Dialogues for Change.” In 2018, a new committee focused on racial equity formed: the Racial Justice and Cultural Competency Committee (RJCCC). The work of the RJCCC created the first Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion within our agency.
Our new director, a formerly incarcerated person, joined our team in January 2022. In 2023, the work for racial equity continues with continued racial equity training in two phases: Changing Lanes (virtual) and Level Up (in person with our Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion).
In 2023, we are moving forward as an agency with a renewed focus on our clients and community engagement. This was my first legislative session; it was a wonderful experience that provided a platform to assist our clients by increasing the pay for our assigned counsel. A substantial raise had not occurred since 2007.
These attorneys are independent contractors who assist us in representing the indigent and underserved. A 35% pay increase is a huge victory for our assigned counsel; they can focus on the work and representation instead of trying to make ends meet for overhead and employees.
I thank everyone on my team for their hard work but most importantly, I thank the legislators for agreeing to an increase and the governor for signing off on it. I look forward to the next legislative session as we push for more for our assigned counsel as well as other matters of importance which relate directly to our ability to provide excellent service to our clients.
Some pressing needs for our agency include making sure that our clients get pertinent information in a timely manner, our clients recognize our agency in the community when we are trying to obtain as well as disseminate information, providing holistic wrap around services to our clients upon disposition of their cases, and recruitment of employees on all levels.
Everyone uses social media; this is an untapped resource for our agency. It is my hope that developing a unit to focus on disseminating information, in real time, to our clients and communities will materialize. A unit dedicated to communication with our clients is essential to empower and equip them as well as make sure that we continue to meet their needs.
This type of unit will also assist with public policy matters at the State Capitol. Many state agencies have units such as this. My experience during the legislative session underscores the importance of being able to give information, as it is developing, to our clients for their edification and education.
We have a new logo and tagline. The logo brings together who we are as an agency, the importance of our clients, and our move to the next level. We initially worked with a female-led small business to help us create the logo for $1,675. We had to move to another state vendor to obtain what we have now for $9,007. We are also improving our website by creating a link to allow our clients to access all information easily.
It is my hope that developing another unit to focus on reentry for all our clients will also materialize. A unit dedicated to actualizing the holistic nature of our representation is critical to not only reducing recidivism rates but also ensuring quality of life for our clients and communities. There is a level of trauma associated with every arrest and court case. A unit committed to assisting all clients once their case is over will focus on various areas including but not limited to mental health resources, regaining, or obtaining housing stability, food insecurity, reunification with family, and employment assistance.
Our 2021-2022 Annual Report provides information about who we are as an agency and our employee demographics. Though we are diverse, we need more people who identify in different ways, with a plethora of enthusiasm and talent, and who are not tied to traditional ways of expression, being and advocacy. Our new logo, two new units, and creative recruitment efforts will be utilized to make our agency more inclusive and effective.
The attorneys of our agency unionized several years ago. In July 2016, the petition was signed into action. In 2023, our agency is still working on ways to provide consistent harmony and cohesion. I firmly believe with the assistance of and collaboration with our Public Defender Services Commission (Commission), we can make it happen.
I am committed to cooperating with the commission. Our clients come first. Our best work is produced when all employees maintain a healthy work/life balance and when our agency is a well-rounded reflection of the communities we serve. I am committed to doing whatever it takes to unify our agency and provide the resources to achieve true harmony and cohesion.
As I wrote in a June 19 email “through education, training, communication, and collaboration, the culture of our agency will shift for the better.”
TaShun Bowden-Lewis is Connecticut’s Chief Public Defender.