Tom Angell retired Dec. 31 after 34 years with the Dutchess County Public Defender’s Office, including 12 as director.
How did you come to be a public defender?
It’s what I wanted to do from an early age, and I went to law school [at Hofstra University] with the express idea that I would do this work. My upbringing and my Quaker faith were influences. My father was a social worker and was head of the [federal] war on poverty [in the 1960s] on Long Island. I worked for Mid-Hudson Legal Services. We had six counties that we provided services for [in civil cases]. I came here in 1989 and specialized in criminal defense.
What changed during your tenure?
We started providing arraignment services 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We have a Family Court practice we never had, which is good because many families have cases in both the criminal and family courts. We beefed up our social-work practice. When I started, we had no social workers. They help by connecting clients with services. They also write mitigation reports, which give a complete social history of clients so the judge does not assess them based simply on the worst days of their lives but understands the totality of their circumstances.
How did discovery and bail reform affect the office?
They transformed the criminal-justice system. With discovery reform, you now have all the information you need to help a client make an informed decision, whereas before it was like playing blind chess. Bail reform has been transformative, as well. There’s a saying: It’s rare for a client who is out [of jail] to go in. If clients are out, they’re better able to help you prepare their case — finding witnesses, reviewing evidence, having unimpeded conversations.
Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of?
One thing I worked on was changing the culture of the office — creating a space where clients feel like someone is concerned about their needs and that we’re here to help, not to judge. When I got a letter about one of our attorneys, and the client said the attorney was concerned about them, I felt proud to be associated with the office.
Any plans for retirement?
I’m going to open a part-time practice in Stanfordville, in a building where two of my children have offices. One has a veterinarian business and the other is a contractor. I have eight children; four of them live on the family farm with 16 of my 28 grandchildren. I’ll spend time with the grandchildren, raising the next generation of public defenders, doctors, farmers, social workers and teachers — caring, productive members of the community.
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