Public Safety

Deputy Public Defenders Win National, State Recognition

One deputy public defender works earnestly assisting homeless veterans who run into legal trouble and another is challenging the “unintended consequences” of Jessica’s Law, which she says forces registered sex offenders into homelessness. Both were recently honored for their efforts. 

Steve Binder, 55, received the Thomas Wynn Sr. Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) in Washington D.C. on May 30. The award is presented to a person whose work has made a difference in the national campaign to end veteran homelessness.

Binder has devoted his life to providing legal assistance to veterans who will remain homeless without it, said John Driscoll, NCHV President and CEO.

With help from Veterans Village of San Diego, Binder created the nation’s first Homeless Court at Stand Down in 1988. The Homeless Court was recognized by the Superior Court of California as a viable option for participation in veteran assistance programs. The people who participate can handle outstanding warrants and misdemeanor charges.

Binder is widely recognized in the legal and veteran assistance communities as a man of vision, and his dedication to addressing the legal barriers that deny homeless veterans employment and housing opportunities has greatly changed the course of this nation, said Driscoll, who is also a Vietnam veteran.

“He would be the first to downplay that notion, but we have had the honor of serving alongside him – working with him, and at times encouraging him – in pursuit of an ideal that has led to the creation of Veterans Courts in nearly 120 cities across the nation,” said Driscoll during the award presentation. 

Binder said he was moved and honored to be accepted into the veteran’s community especially as he has not served in the military.

“The participants that show up at Stand Down and graduates of the Veterans Court are an inspiration to us all — that they can overcome some serious obstacles and challenges and rebuild a life,” Binder said.

But in order to do that, homeless veterans need to have opportunities and access to the services that help them obtain employment and housing so they can live a full lawful life, he said.

Binder said that while the award has his name on it, it is representative of the collaborative efforts of San Diego defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, bailiffs and court clerks working together with nonprofit agencies and the clients themselves.

Another deputy public defender, Laura Arnold, was presented a top honor in the state. She accepted the 2013 Defender of the Year award from the California Public Defenders Association in Lake Tahoe in late April. She has been working since 2007 to challenge the unintended consequences of Jessica’s Law, which has led to a substantial increase in homelessness among sex offenders because they cannot live within 2,000 feet of a school or park.

In January of this year, the California Supreme Court agreed to review the case to decide whether the residency restrictions were unconstitutional. It can sometimes take years for the Supreme Court to review a case, but Arnold said she feels very fortunate that the court will be reviewing the case.

The award presented to her reads: “You have made a profound difference by fighting tirelessly to give your clients a chance to make their futures and to be treated as human beings who have value. Because of your work, their lives have been changed, and our society is better for it.”

Arnold said she speaks to other public defenders about this issue. Homeless offenders are more difficult to track and rehabilitate ”impacting public safety in a way that has not gone unnoticed by law enforcement, parole and probation officials, and treatment providers.” She said there needs to be a better way to track,   rehabilitate, and address risk factors for sex offenders. The restrictions make it nearly impossible to find affordable housing that is not near schools or parks, and that leaves sex offenders no alternative other than living in an alley, she said.

In the meantime, while the Supreme Court has the case, Arnold said, “The work that I’ve been doing is primarily focused on utilizing government resources to most effectively minimize the danger posed by higher risk individuals.”

Arnold has worked for the Public Defender’s Office since 1995. It was her first job out of law school.

 

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact