Tom Reed has a simple philosophy about his work as a public defender.
“Every life that we can make better by the quality of the work that we do is significant and meaningful,” he said.
It’s part of the reason Reed got involved with evidence-based decision making.
“It’s always been the case that criminal justice systems use various kinds of evidence to make decisions, so in one sense you could say we’ve always had an evidence-based approach,” said Reed, who oversees about 90 employees, including 60 attorneys, as regional attorney manager for the State Public Defender’s Office’s Milwaukee Trial Division.
“The thing about evidence-based decision making is it attempts to look at the criminal justice system in terms of key decision points. And, at each key decision point, asking, ‘Are we using the best possible information we can to make those decisions? And when we do, can we measure the outcomes to make sure those decisions are really working?’”
Reed and his team have had the chance to put those ideas to work thanks to a technical assistance grant, one of three awarded nationwide, from the National Institute of Corrections.
“Tom really took a leadership role on that,” said Kelli Thompson, a fellow state public defender who has worked with Reed. “Tom really saw this as a place where you could provide a lot of tools.”
One of those tools is a universal screening program used to evaluate defendants’ risks and needs before they go to court.
“It allows some defendants to be routed from their booking into the jail to a diversion program to give them a pathway out of the jail system. And that allows for fewer people to be in jail,” Reed said.
It’s just a piece of the puzzle, but one Reed hopes will bolster other community efforts, which is why Reed also works with the Milwaukee Criminal Justice Council, the Milwaukee Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility and the Milwaukee Bar Association’s Board of Directors. He also has taught at Milwaukee Area Technical College and works as an adjunct professor of law at Marquette Law School.
“He is tireless in his efforts,” Thompson said.
For Reed, it’s just what needs to be done.
“When you’re given the opportunity to do things that really make a difference it takes all your time and energy,” he said. “… But I don’t think there’s anyone who does public defender work who doesn’t sign on for a lot of hard work and long hours.
That’s just the culture we’re in.”