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In D.C., public defenders aren't where the system falls short

By Jim Arkedis
Washington
Sunday, March 28, 2010; C05

If all goes according to plan, my friend Tim Cofield will be a free man by the time you read this. He was scheduled to get out of the D.C. jail Friday. Despite having spent more than three months in an orange jumpsuit, Tim would probably disagree with Eric Holder's February speech to the National Symposium on Indigent Defense, in which the attorney general called for more funding to fulfill Americans' right to competent defense. While I'm sure Holder is correct that "in some parts of the country . . . basic public defender systems simply do not exist," Tim -- whom I mentor through the fantastic Welcome Home Reentry Program -- would tell you D.C. public defenders are actually quite good.

In the District, money would be better used to improve post-release rehabilitation and mental health programs. Without better support for parolees, we cannot break a cycle that leads to the reconviction of two-thirds within three years. This astonishing statistic is due to many factors, but here are two big ones: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 74 percent of inmates enter state prisons hooked on drugs or alcohol and 56 percent have a significant mental health problem. Tim checks both boxes.

In November, after stealing a pair of jeans, Tim (who agreed to have his story told here) was arrested and convicted, by my count, for the fourth time in his life. Tim's highly competent public defender worked to ensure that he was sentenced to just three months and placed in an in-house drug treatment program. With Tim's record, it could have been much worse. Since 1986, he has been in and out of prison for armed robbery, possession of narcotics and parole violation. He's also been shot twice and stabbed. All this happened to a kid with a way out -- in the '70s, he was a basketball star who could have left Anacostia to play in college. Instead, he's rung in 13 of his 54 Christmases behind bars.

Tim's addictions are nasty. Crack and alcohol affect him so badly that he might pass out in mid-sentence during a meal, only to snap awake and mumble at a hundred miles an hour. He is also bipolar/schizophrenic. I don't know how Tim's mental illnesses and drug use affect one another, but undoubtedly they do. I'm also sure they contribute to his being something less than truthful about his substance use: That his nodding off when we talked was because the shelter was too noisy for sleeping, or that the codeine for a painful bunion had knocked him out. Despite this, Tim has a highly admirable side. He's aware of his problems and wants to address them. He woke up at 4:30 every morning for six months for a nine-buck-an-hour maintenance gig. He's tried every drug and alcohol treatment program his parole officer ever suggested.

We're at a crucial point. Tim has probably (though not certainly) stayed clean in the prison's rehab program. I visited him in jail, and he seemed clear-headed and resolved. He is being released into a halfway house that also serves as a drug treatment program. The quality of these programs varies wildly, but regardless, I know he needs much more than just rehab.

His chances to salvage any semblance of a productive life depend on a combination of high-quality substance counseling, consistent therapy and stable housing. Quality all-service programs are rare. Those that do exist in the District -- such as the program run by So Others Might Eat -- are difficult to get into.

So I applaud Eric Holder's focus on public defense. Heaven knows Tim has needed it. But if we don't pay more attention to post-release rehabilitation and counseling, Tim is just going to need a public defender again soon.

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