Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

Passing the Baton in the Federal Defender’s Office: An Interview with Miriam Conrad and Kyana Givens

February 09, 2023
| Winter 2023 Vol. 67 #1

By Hon. Debra Squires-Lee, Miriam Conrad, and Kyana Givens

I had the opportunity to interview Miriam Conrad, the recently-retired Federal Defender for the Districts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, and her successor, Kyana Givens, about their careers and their perspectives on the office. The following is an excerpt of our discussion, condensed and edited for clarity. – Hon. Debra A. Squires-Lee

Q: One of my favorite poems ends with the line that a person cries for “work that is real.” I think one could not dispute that the work that you chose to do for so many years, Miriam, and the work that you are doing now, Kyana, is so real and so important. So, thank you for that. I want to start, with you, Miriam, what have you been working on since you left the office?

Conrad: I have been working a little bit with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization on their committee for returning citizens. I had participated in a working group back during the Obama Administration with then Vice President Biden’s staff on issues regarding reentry. I also just went through a training to hopefully start representing juveniles convicted of first-degree murder before the state parole board. That’s going to be the first dipping of my toe in the water of actually representing individuals again. I am also working with something called the International Legal Foundation which sets up public defenders’ offices in other countries.

Q: As you look back on your time as the Federal Defender, what have been the accomplishments of which you have been the most proud?

Conrad: The groundwork for this was laid by my predecessor, Owen Walker, but I am most proud of building an office that is filled with talented, committed people at all levels who are committed to providing the highest quality legal representation to indigent defendants and also ensuring that they treat our clients with respect and empathy. I am also proud of trying to ensure that the staff had sufficient resources to support their work. In 2013, right around the time of the Boston Marathon bombing, there was a federal sequester which cut our funding; people had to be furloughed and there was a real sense of crisis. We got through that making sure that our high standard of representation remained the same throughout that time.

Q: Defender Givens, how are you liking being back in New England?

Givens: I love being back in New England. I have two young children, so they are reminding me how fun it is to be in the city and seeing it through their eyes. Obviously, it is a totally different perspective than the twenty-year-old me. It has been deeply meaningful too; I think where you go to law school is where your mind opens up to what you could do with your career and remains a special place. I had some of best mentors here in law school, so to come back and lead the office means a lot to me in my heart.

Q: What brought you to this work and what made you want to take this position?

Givens: I have always done public defense right out of law school. I had the opportunity to do a fellowship that focused on defense in the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute Clinic where I met two of the best mentors who really had a huge impact on me. I knew this was what I was going to do with my life. And then, luckily, I have just been at really good offices where I learned not only how to represent people who are facing criminal charges, but also the structure of criminal defense, how it has grown and changed nationally. For me, a big part of accepting this job was really loving the idea of exploring where we could go next and what the future of federal public defense looks like in a well-resourced office. I was very interested in pushing the expectations.

Q: What are your major priorities for the future of the office?

Givens: My priority right now is leading through a big transition. Obviously, we lost a giant in Miriam. Sitting in her chair, I can now appreciate even more how she did everything, and did everything well, so, one of my big priorities is implementing a hiring plan. I am also focused on inviting people into the office from discipline areas that we haven’t traditionally had: we just hired a mitigation specialist with an M.S.W.; we would like to grow a social work intern program alongside of the already very good legal intern program that attracts a lot of people from the local schools; we are in the middle of hiring an e-discovery coordinator because one of the seismic shifts in our practice is the amount of digitized discovery. I’ve partnered with the UC Berkley Center for Law & Technology to have a group of law students and a professor survey all three of our districts to learn about the barriers to access to justice for in-custody clients; they just finished that project and gave us a great report. E-discovery is also a priority of Chief Judge Saylor, so I am also sitting on his e-discovery working group with other court stakeholders that are tackling this problem together.

Q: Miriam, what work do you view as unfinished in terms of federal defenders’ offices or the federal criminal justice system?

Conrad: In terms of the federal criminal justice system, there are still incredible obstacles; one of the biggest ones is mandatory minimum sentencing and that has not gone away despite the campaign promises of the current President and Vice President. It puts enormous power in the hands of prosecutors and it greatly adds to mass incarceration, particularly of people of color. I think another challenge is the funding and even structural side. The U.S. Courts convened the Cardone Committee that studied the structure of both defender offices and privately appointed counsel, which is largely under the aegis of the judiciary, and noted how that creates some real problems. It recommended a new structure that would take some of that power over the defenders away from the judiciary, but that has not been implemented. David Patton, the Defender in the Southern District of New York, wrote a law review article advocating for new funding formulas that would address these issues.

Givens: That hits the nail on the head: the funding and the mandatory minimums are key. I have spoken out strongly about mandatory minimums when I testified before Congress. I recently also wrote an article about the Safe Communities Act and what that is going to do our young people charged with crimes federally. Mandatory minimums, to me, quite simply, wipe out generations of Black and Brown people from communities.

I think most of us who love this work and are engaged in this work would like to see systemic change. As far as the big structure, I think one example that brings it real close to our own backyard is growing the restorative justice program. Judge Sorokin is very invested in this, but because of this difference in funding, the U.S. attorneys can devote three people full-time to it, whereas I don’t have the same type of funding and we know that restorative justice is better with a balanced set of facilitators. That differential has real, practical impact. Restorative justice is transformational, and we’re saying we don’t want to see them recidivate, and we know statistically that it reduces recidivism, but because I don’t have the funding, I can’t fully jump into that pool even if my court and the prosecutor have the energy behind it.

Q: Defender Givens, what have you found most surprising about your tenure so far?

Givens: One of my great joys about coming to the district is I have been surprised how much I really love engaging with all the stakeholders. When you’re a line attorney, you’re fighting with the prosecutor, with probation, even with judges. This role requires a problem-solving attitude and I’m oriented to that and really enjoying it. I think we enjoy a level of camaraderie and innovation in the First Circuit. We’re willing to stand out in ways that maybe the rest of the country is not; that makes it exciting to be here. And of course there’s just no place on earth where you have an African-American federal defender and an African-American U.S. attorney, both women from the same law school. So, this is a conversation that we openly engage in with each other, and I couldn’t be more pleased to be across the aisle from such a good leader. I really enjoy the conversation that we’re having and the ways that I’m able to take it to a national level as well.

Q: What do you want the bar to know about Kyana Givens and the office right now?

Givens: That the office is a place that is very excited about change. Miriam, and Owen before her, set such a good foundation so that I get to walk into an office with my full self. I’m a visionary. I have big ideas. I want to implement them. I want to see us be out in front in changing the way public defense occurs. Being with a group of people who are open to that and building an office around those ideas with our clients and our mission as front and center is the goal. Change is hard, but it’s also very exciting. I’ve been in three other jurisdictions. I’ve had the opportunity to work across the aisle and with other judges. I sit on the Federal Defender Sentencing Guidelines Committee and they were teasing me because they said, “You’re coming to us all of a sudden very happy with your bench.” And I said, “I am. They’re very supportive and they are really let us make the fight that we think is worthy,” and that’s not the case everywhere.