Defenders Conference Reflects the Times, Including Challenging Racism

"Transforming Public Defense in a Crisis World," dedicated to Charles F. O'Brien. Conference-Planning Attorney Is Wells College Honoree.

ALBANY, NY (08/03/2020) (readMedia)-- The New York State Defenders Association (NYSDA) proudly announces completion of its 53rd Annual Meeting and Conference. Conducted online, the week-long event reflected events and trends of the current times in its format, content, and title: "Transforming Public Defense in a Crisis World."

Last year's conference saw around 350 lawyers gathered in Saratoga Springs, NY. This year, over 400 registered. "We see that holding events online can expand their reach," said NYSDA Board President John C. Turi, Public Defender in Rensselaer County. "But conversely, we miss the many opportunities for making collegial connections that in-person NYSDA conferences have long provided," he went on. Complications of legal life stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic were addressed in some of the continuing legal education (CLE) conference sessions. One, for example, taught lawyers new skills for participating in legal proceedings remotely.

Some CLE presenters aimed to keep lawyers up-to-date on rapidly changing law, particularly changes resulting from ongoing legislative attention to justice system reforms and protests about institutional racism, protests that began with George Floyd's death in Minnesota last May. Conference sessions, both CLE events and a Chief Defender Convening of office heads from across the state, promoted discussion of these issues, with many participants remaining in webinar "rooms" beyond the ending time to continue to talk. "Observations from those in attendance will inform our ongoing efforts to implement the actions outlined in our statement, Black Lives Matter to NYSDA, issued in early June," said NYSDA Executive Director Susan C. Bryant. "We are striving to identify and end racism and implicit biases in our own procedures as well as in the systems that directly impact public defense clients," she added.

The conference was dedicated to Charles F. O'Brien, NYSDA's long-time Managing Attorney and second Executive Director, who died in March. As noted in the newsletter published following his death, he had a tremendous impact on NYSDA's training program and the many other NYSDA services that improve the quality of public defense representation. He also deeply affected many of the defenders he assisted, state- and nation-wide. "We think that Charlie would have been proud of the amazing training lineup put together by Senior Staff Attorney Stephanie Batcheller and Family Court Staff Attorney Kimberly Bode, with the support of Training Manager Megan O'Toole," Bryant said in a video welcoming conference participants.

Batcheller stepped into the lead role for planning NYSDA's training programs in 2017, as O'Brien became Executive Director. When Batcheller was named a recipient of the Wells College Association of Alumnae and Alumni (WCA) 2020 WCA Award earlier this year, the announcement said that O'Brien, who had supported Batcheller's nomination, described her as "an unsung hero to those in the public defense system." NYSDA heartily congratulates Batcheller on this well-deserved honor.

The awards' presentations that are usually a highlight of the NYSDA Annual Conference were among the events placed on hiatus by COVID-19. Those suspended honors include the Jonathan E. Gradess Service of Justice Award, named for NYSDA's founding Director. Gradess, who retired in 2017, died last October, as reported in the Aug.-Oct. 2019 issue of NYSDA's newsletter. The public defense community continues to grieve the loss of both Jonathan and Charlie, while also appreciating their many contributions and celebrating their many accomplishments.

The New York State Defenders Association, a not-for-profit, membership organization, has been providing support to New York's public defense community since 1967. Its mission is to improve the quality and scope of publicly supported legal representation to low income people.