The people Paige Chapman represents through the Delaware Office of Defense Services (ODS) all have two things in common: They are in trouble with the law and they can’t afford a lawyer.
“If our office is representing you, you are already struggling,” she says.
As a public defender, Chapman represents juveniles. That might be a 14-year-old girl who shoplifts designer jeans, the youth who vandalizes his neighbor’s house or the high school sophomore who pulls a gun on a kid who insulted his mother.
The youngest defendant she has represented was a 10-year-old boy who went joyriding in his parents’ car. (Since then, the minimum age children can face prosecution has been raised to 12.)
In Delaware, 85% of people represented by public defenders are Black or brown. Chapman is the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) coordinator at ODS, part of a commitment by chief defender Kevin O’Connell to eradicate systemic racism in the courts and in society.
“We want to listen to the folks we represent,” she says. When Chapman listens to the kids she serves, she often hears they don’t get enough to eat. Many have parents in prison. Some have taken on adult responsibilities despite their tender years. About half stand accused of felonies.
“They are putting clothes on their younger brothers’ and sisters’ backs,” she says. “Most of these kids, if not all of them, have experienced serious trauma. They have gone through struggles that are unimaginable.”
In sentencing juveniles, the emphasis is on healing rather than punishment, with a trauma-informed approach that takes into account the impact of negative childhood experiences. The goal is to give young people the tools they need to get on the right path. “It’s about completing a program, not incarceration,” Chapman explains. “The crime is still a crime, but the treatment is much different.”
In dealing with adult defendants, Chapman is concerned that the pendulum of public opinion is swinging toward stiff sentences and pretrial detention, strategies that create a ripple of woe, especially for people of color who are statistically less likely to have a safety net.
“Putting someone in pretrial detention has negative consequences,” she says. “They might lose housing, they might lose a job, their children might be taken away.”
Of the 23 public defenders at ODS, 17—or 74%—are white. Four are Black, one is Asian and one is biracial. Chapman plays a lead role in increasing diversity at ODS. She notes the office is making strides in establishing a pipeline of future attorneys. Of the 10 law clerks who worked at ODS last summer, seven were women, three were Black and two identified with the LGBTQ+ community.
Chapman, 32, strives to be a role model for the people she serves. She believes defendants who are Black and brown can benefit from working with legal representatives who also are of color.
“It brings a deeper dynamic to the experience. Someone who looks like them might be better able to establish a bond,” she says. “When kids see a Black woman in a position of power of advocating for them, it shows them that they, too, can succeed.”
To build equity, ODS has conducted in-house training sessions on such topics as understanding implicit bias and how to weave gender and race into legal arguments to better represent clients. Chapman is working to build connections with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including recruiting interns from Delaware State University.
‘I Immediately Wanted to Help’
Paige Courtney Chapman was born in 1995, the daughter of William and Patricia Chapman. From the beginning, she seemed destined for a career in the justice system. Her mother’s roommate in the maternity ward was Kathleen Jennings, who would go on to become state attorney general. Her father was a Delaware state trooper.
“I lived in a sheltered bubble,” she says.
Chapman was a good student who majored in political science at the University of Delaware. She took a constitutional law class and was immediately smitten by the majesty and power of the document that frames the rights of Americans.
“I fell in love with the Constitution,” she recalls.
At Widener law school, that romance deepened when she spent summers clerking for ODS.
“Through my internship, I was able get a firsthand look at how the criminal legal system disproportionally affects minority and other vulnerable populations,” she says. “I was able to understand the critical need for quality, free legal representation to those who otherwise would not be able it afford it, and I immediately wanted to help fill that need.”
Before joining ODS, Chapman worked for two years in the Community Legal Aid Society Poverty Law Program, serving victims of domestic violence in family court and representing tenants of subsidized housing in eviction proceedings.
Chapman and Jennings both served on the steering committee for the Delaware Bench and Bar Diversity Report released in 2022, which brought together judges, lawyers, educators and community activists. The report found that people of color are underrepresented in both the bar and on the bench, especially in Kent and Sussex counties, and recommended establishing a pipeline for legal talent starting in elementary school.
The report noted that people of color constitute 38.7% of Delaware’s population, with Black people being the largest minority group at 22%. In contrast, 5.3% of Wilmington law partners and 11.6% of associates identified as people of color, according to the 2020 statistics from the National Association for Law Placement. Nationally, 10.23% of partners are attorneys of color and 26.48% of associates are attorneys of color.
Starting early is an integral strategy in nurturing a diverse legal community. The report supports introducing Delaware Civics Standards in public schools for grades K–12, with a focus on legal vocational programs. The report also recommends taking a page from the successful Minority Engineering Regional Incentive Training (MERIT) program to stimulate interest in the law.
“We know that achieving truly equitable justice is only possible when the actors in the justice system mirror the people they serve,” Jennings says. “While we are in the early days of implementation, I believe that the strategic plan set forth in the report has done a good job creating recommendations that forge a path from pre-college all the way through to the bar with tailored education, outreach and opportunities engineered to work with established systems and institutions, from the MERIT program to internships with Delaware’s top law firms.”
“WE know that ACHIEVING truly EQUITABLE JUSTICE is only possible when the ACTORS in the justice SYSTEM mirror the PEOPLE they SERVE.”
Some of the report’s recommendations have already been implemented. Last fall, the Delaware Judicial Branch hired a DEI officer to spearhead an initiative to attract, retain and promote a diverse workforce throughout all courts in the state.
“We have our work cut out for us, but we have a solid plan and a strong determination to see it through,” Jennings adds.
Getting a Clean Slate
Bryan Stevenson, the Milton native who founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, believes Delaware could become a national model for diversity, equity and inclusion in the justice system. Stevenson shined a spotlight on injustice in the legal community with his book Just Mercy, made into a film in which Stevenson was portrayed by Michael B. Jordan. The EJI has won freedom for more than a dozen wrongfully convicted people on death row.
“We need to talk about the ways in which history creates bias,” Stevenson says. “If we don’t talk about it, we can’t overcome it.”
In Alabama and a number of other states, poor people accused of crimes do not have the benefit of public defenders. Instead, lawyers in private practice are appointed by the court to take the case.
In Delaware, public defenders specialize in various legal areas, including homicide, domestic violence, driving under the influence, juvenile defense and appeals. Last year, the team handled more than 20,000 cases—about 85% of all criminal cases in the state. Defenders are supported by translators, forensic nurses, criminal investigators, behavioral-health professionals and other experts. The holistic approach includes connecting people who are getting out of prison with a place to live.
The work at ODS doesn’t stop when the judge’s gavel goes down. ODS also is an advocate for former offenders who want to expunge their criminal records.
Eliza Hirst, head of the Post-Disposition Unit, leads the office’s effort to make expungement more accessible. ODS, the state’s Department of Labor and organizations like the Delaware Center for Justice regularly host expungement clinics, helping former offenders navigate the process.
A new state law that will go into effect in 2024 automatically expunges the records of people with a minor misdemeanor or arrest, but people with more serious charges on their records will still have to go through the expungement process or seek a pardon from the governor.
People who get a clean slate are far less likely to turn to crime in the future, proponents of expungement note. Fewer than 5% of people who have their record expunged are convicted of a subsequent crime, according to the attorney general’s office. Fewer than 1% are convicted of violent crimes.
People who complete the expungement process are also less likely to be poor, increasing their wages by 20% over the course of a lifetime. Expungement benefits the labor market, too, and is supported by a number of local employers, including Amazon, Walmart and JP Morgan Chase.
“WE can’t pay you the way a BIG LAW FIRM can pay you, but DEFENDING someone who might not otherwise have a VOICE is a priceless EXPERIENCE.”
Shaquille Dollard can relate to the teens who wind up in Chapman’s office. He started getting in trouble when he was 14 and was picked up by the police for breaking curfew in the city of Wilmington. His next arrest was for petty theft. At 18, he was arrested for drug possession. The charges were dropped, but the arrest remained on his record.
“It was dumb stuff, hanging out with the wrong people,” he says.
In his 20s, Dollard turned his life around. He was no longer running afoul of the law, yet his arrest record followed him.
“My background held me back,” he says. “It was a barrier in getting a license for a business, jobs that I could not get because of my record.”
Dollard saw a notice for an expungement clinic at Wilmington Library. He paid a small fee for fingerprinting, for which he was reimbursed. He underwent a background check to ensure his record had remained clean.
“It’s fairly straightforward—and you get a clean slate,” he says.
At 29, Dollard is in business for himself, working in real estate. He’s a devoted father, committed to providing a good life for his daughter.
“Today, the people I surround myself with are different,” he says. “I can look forward, not backwards, because I don’t have a record hanging over me.”
‘A Priceless Experience’
Chapman talks candidly to the youths she represents about avoiding future brushes with the law.
“I try to meet them where there are at,” she says. “What’s going on? How can we motivate you to engage in school? I love you guys, but I never want to see you again.”
She’s seen lots of kids who stay out of trouble after making a youthful mistake. Still, Chapman’s heart breaks for the young people who haven’t yet been able to resist the siren call of the streets. Exercise helps her to destress.
“I go for a run and cry it out,” she says.
On this rare quiet afternoon, Chapman is sitting at her desk. The silence doesn’t last long. Outside her office door, a colleague bursts into song. Chapman laughs. “People really love working here,” she says.
For the past 11 years, ODS has been named one of the top places to work by The News Journal. Yet the office has openings for lawyers in all three counties. In the past year, ODS hired 11 attorneys and took a small step toward its goal of adding more people of color to the staff. One of the new public defenders is Black; one is Asian.
Part of the staff shortage can be attributed to a surge in retirements during the pandemic. At the same time, fewer lawyers entered the workforce due to delays in taking the bar exam during COVID-19 restrictions. Financial compensation is also an issue. The average annual salary for a public defender is $81,973—compared with an average $157,610 for lawyers statewide—according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Chapman acknowledges money is an obstacle ODS works hard to overcome in recruiting attorneys.
“We try to sell someone on the intangibles,” she says. “We can’t pay you the way a big law firm can pay you, but defending someone who might not otherwise have a voice is a priceless experience.”
Chapman believes ODS is helping to make Delaware a fairer and more inclusive place for all its citizens, and she is committed to being part of that initiative. The drive to achieve true justice is rooted in the Constitution and nurtured by people who are passionate about upholding those ideals.
“It’s not something that ends. There will always be need for improvement,” she says. “We will always be conscious and intentional in that work.”