Washington, DC (Oct. 12, 2021) — At the NACDL Foundation for Criminal Justice (NFCJ) 2021 Gala, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) presented the International Legal Foundation with the 2021 Champion of Public Defense Award and the Legal Aid Society of Puerto Rico’s Juvenile Justice Program with the 2020 Champion of Public Defense Award. Awarded by NACDL’s Public Defense Committee, the Champion of Public Defense Award recognizes an individual or group for exceptional efforts in making positive changes to a local, county, state, or federal public defense system and highlights efforts toward systemic advances through legislation, litigation, or other strategies.
2021 Champion of Public Defense Awardee the International Legal Foundation (ILF) is a non-profit organization working to improve global access to justice and advocate for the right to counsel by helping nations establish robust public defense systems. For 20 years, they have developed legal aid institutions and provided criminal defense services around the world. The ILF offers technical legal assistance worldwide, and currently provides direct defense services in Afghanistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Palestine, and Tunisia. ILF lawyers have represented over 70,000 clients since 2001.
The ILF has been a critical advocate for incarcerated individuals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting against excessive pretrial detention and the criminalization of petty offenses, and promoting alternatives to incarceration through high-level advocacy, strategic litigation, and by providing legal aid services in courts for some of the world’s most vulnerable people. As a result of these services, the ILF has secured the release of hundreds of incarcerated people at high risk of COVID-19 and advocated to protect the health and safety of the global prison population.
"Since their inception, hundreds, thousands of people who were held for sometimes petty offenses, some have more serious offenses, are now walking free because of this organization and the lawyers who work here trying to ensure justice, not just in this country, but expanded around the world," said Tony Thedford, Co-Chair of NACDL’s Public Defense Committee.
"I’m so grateful to be here tonight and incredibly honored to accept the NACDL 2021 Champion of Public Defense award on the behalf of the International Legal Foundation’s public defenders around the world who are working in some of the most challenging circumstances," said the ILF’s Executive Director Jennifer Smith. "As a former public defender myself, I am inspired every day by the ILF’s incredible team. My public defender colleagues are doing not only what is uncomfortable, but in many countries they are literally risking their lives for their belief in fair and equitable justice for all."
2020 Champion of Public Defense Awardee the Legal Aid Society of Puerto Rico’s Juvenile Justice Program is the only organization in all of Puerto Rico that represents indigent minors in every jurisdiction and through every stage of the legal process. The program is composed of 12 juvenile defenders working to protect the rights of their clients, advocate for legislative change, develop juvenile justice pilot programs, and conduct trainings to improve the treatment of youth in Puerto Rico’s legal system. The Legal Aid Society of Puerto Rico’s Juvenile Justice Program has established several programs to improve youth access to justice in Puerto Rico. One such program, SAL por EL PAIS, seeks to prevent juvenile delinquency through workshops and education. They have also established a Special Post-Disposition Unit to ensure that institutionalized youth have access to effective service and re-entry plans, among other resources. Members of the Legal Aid Society train judges in Puerto Rico’s juvenile courts on topics including brain development of minors, abolition of solitary confinement in juvenile institutions, and the need for granting legal representation to all minors. Among their many initiatives was advocacy for a series of legal system reform bills.
As Co-Chair of NACDL’s Public Defense Committee Gabriel Reyes explained, "These warriors who call themselves the last of the Mohicans started writing legislation for what they thought should be reforms in the juvenile justice system in Puerto Rico…these were issues that hadn’t been discussed in Puerto Rico for over 30 years, and it caught the attention of judges, it caught the attention of press, it caught the attention of legislators. These reforms became legislation, this legislation made it out of the House, the Senate, crossed the governor’s desk. The governor vetoed it. But they had created...so much goodwill for the program that the Senate overrode the governor’s veto...When we think about the Champion of Public Defense award, about an institution that’s going out there and fighting for change, creating change in a local, state, or federal system, we thought that they deserved it."
"I remember a part from Don Quixote where there were dogs barking at him and his servant, and the servant said, ‘Don Quixote, the dogs are barking at us.’ And Don Quixote replied ‘Don’t worry, if they are barking it is because we are advancing; it means we are moving forward.’ And this is what we are doing in Puerto Rico," said Julian Claudio Gotay, the organization's Director of Juvenile Justice and Community Programs. "I've been a public defender for life, and many people around here are public defenders for life. And it's a work that is a like a religion. And it hurts, it makes you feel tired, the case load is very very heavy... but there is hope, and it's something that we are able to promote change. Keep dreaming," Gotay said, "make dreams come true."