Public Defender speaks of giving people “a way out of the darkness”
Newly confirmed Public Defender, Douglas Fiaui is hoping to work with the Legislature to find “a way out of the darkness” for some of the people convicted of felony crimes, so they are able to return back to society to find work and take care of themselves and their families.
Additionally, these people shouldn’t be discarded like “spoiled food” but “dust them off and help them to do better.”
Fiaui made the comments during his nearly 10-minute opening remarks before the Senate Government Operations Committee during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday morning. He was later confirmed by the Senate in a unanimous 16-0 vote and was endorsed by the House last week. He is now fully confirmed by the Fono for another four years as Public Defender, and he also heads the Office of Public Defender.
The thirty-nine year old Fiaui informed senators that as Public Defender, he and his office work to defend the rights of the people who have been grabbed by the criminal justice system and accused of breaking the law.
“We do our best. With all the education and training that we have, with all the wits and guts that we possess, we fight,” he said. “We stand up to the police, we stand up to prosecutors, we stand in front of judges and juries, and we say ‘this is not right, this isn’t fair, this is unconstitutional’. Sometimes we’re hurt but more often, we’re not listened to.”
But, “we continue to fight for the people, who are our clients, and for the rights of all the people of American Samoa,” he said, adding that there have been thousands of people they have fought for and represented in court, in the last four years.
“And all of these people are more than what they’ve been accused of and convicted of,” he pointed out. “These people are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, many are parents and sometimes, even grandparents.”
“They are people with families that care about them, that’s how I see them. Most of them get through their experience in the criminal justice system and move on with their lives. Many however do not. Many cannot,” he explained.
Fiaui said most of the clients he has worked with are those who have been accused and convicted of very serious crimes — felonies. And these are the individuals that Fiaui spoke of at outset of his confirmation hearing.
He explained that a person convicted of a felony is “relegated to a life time of second class citizenship” and this is “especially burdensome and counter productive for young people that have felony convictions.”
For example, recently there were two young men — 22 and 25 years old — that he represented and were sent to prison for five and 7 years, respectively, for property crimes — stealing and burglary. And he has seen that in many other cases of non violent crimes, like drug possession, felony driving, writing bad checks, property damage and so on.
“People lose years of their lives, paying for their crimes with prison time. In many cases they are fined and they also lose their permanent right to vote and their ability to work for the largest employer in the territory — which is the American Samoa Government,” he pointed out.
“With no productive skills acquired and few if any... what kind of life awaits these people when they’re released from prison,” he asked. He noted that it “cannot really surprise anyone”, when people in this kind of situation, reoffend, or violate conditions of their probation.
“It no longer surprises me, it breaks my heart. These people don’t want to be a burden on their families; they don’t want to be a burden on anyone. They want to be able to contribute and take care of themselves,” Fiaui said.
However, “it’s very difficult to do and can be nearly impossible with the felony conviction that hangs around their neck,” he told the committee. “I think we can do better. I think everyone deserves at least a second chance. That’s why I hope, to be able to work with you, to find a way back, and a way out of the darkness for some of these people.”
He recalled of what’s been said about the ocean and tuna stocks, but “I believe that our people are our ‘greatest natural resource’. We cannot just throw away these people and their lives, like spoiled food. We should pick them up and dust them off and help them to do better.
“We should recognize that they, like all of us, have potential,” he said, adding that there should be some compassion, despite the crimes committed. “I am optimistic that can begin with us. It is my sincere hope that we can work together to address some of the issues that I’ve brought up.”
Sen. Fai’ivae Iuli Godinet said it appears that the Fiaui is looking to lessen punishment of persons convicted of crimes, but he has seen the Public Defender’s Office in court representing the same individual more than once, as the individual becomes a repeat offender. He asked if the PD’s office refers their clients to an institution to help them or get counseling service.
Generally what happens, Fiaui explained, is when the person pleads guilty to a crime or is convicted of a crime, and if they’re put on probation, the court will supervise and require them to attend counseling or to participate in any services that are available.
The PD Office can make recommendations to the court for the person to participate in counseling service. “So our job is to familiarize ourselves with our client, with their personal situation, their family situation, or their work situations... so we can make recommendations to the court that we think will help them,” he explained. “Whether or not the court follows the recommendations, is at the discretion of the court.”
Fai’ivae asked as to whether there is a local rehabilitation facility for individuals when it comes to drug cases. “The only rehab that I know here is the [Territorial] Correctional Facility,” the Fofo senator pointed out.
Fiaui said there are local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that provide drug counseling and there are people trying to set up programs to address addiction issues with narcotics and so forth.
On the government’s side, the Department of Human and Social Services offers certain services, he said, adding that he is not aware of any program that directly addresses narcotics that’s available through the government.
He said the NGOs’ programs address an addiction to drugs and he has spoken to his clients about these programs and they find them helpful. “It provides them with some tools to assist them as they try to address their problem,” he said. “I think there definitely could be more. Some people need more intensive counseling and rehabilitation.”
Fai’ivae said the reason he asked about a rehabilitation facility is because he believes drugs are the biggest problem on island but there’s no drug rehabilitation to address such serious issues.
“We talk about rehabilitation... but there’s absolutely nothing here to send them to rehab,” he said and suggested that Fiaui look into this issue “because we do need a rehab here.”
Samoa News will report next week on other questions from senators during the one-hour confirmation hearing.