Interview with Steve Hattori, Guam Public Defender

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Release Date: 
Tuesday, March 19, 2019

It's Public Defender Week so we're highlighting some of the awesome directors of our host sites! Read on to hear about Steve Hattori, the Executive Director of the Guam Public Defender Service Corporation. Carly, our VISTA member in Guam, and Hattori talk about the history of public defense in Guam with humor.

"On a quiet Tuesday afternoon, I sat down with Guam Public Defender Service Corporation Executive Director Steve Hattori to discuss his nearly twenty years of service as a public defender on the island that raised him.


When asked what prompted him to become a public defender, Mr. Hattori immediately relayed his family’s history in public service. “My grandfather was a judge here,” and three of his sisters are professors at the University of Guam. “We’re all the wrong type of doctors!” he exclaims, alluding to the vast pay difference between public servants and industry practitioners.


Mr. Hattori submitted his first job application to the Guam Public Defender Service Corporation prior to his law school graduation in 1994. There were no openings, so he took a position in a private firm, all the while waiting for his opportunity to join government service. After the Guam Supreme Court opened in 1996, he spent two years serving as a law clerk for one of its first justices. Then, the position he had been vying for finally opened up.


“When I first came on as a public defender, I only had three or four years’ experience, and the cases were crazy. My fifth trial was a homicide. That should never have happened.” As he moved up in seniority, Mr. Hattori constantly sought ways to reform PDSC’s system of case distribution. Undoubtedly a reaction to his trial-by-fire beginnings, he now encourages his team to work together to resolve complex cases and prepare for trials. “I moved into management because when I was a young public defender you really were left to sink or swim, and that’s not really fair to our clients. Our mentoring system is relatively new, so there is room for improvement, but we’ll eventually get there.”


As a humorous response to my initial question, Mr. Hattori confirmed that he “didn’t become a public defender for the money.” He wanted to help people, he says, and still does, especially considering his clients’ demonstration of their incredible potential for healing and rehabilitation.


“Guam is a forgiving place,” he says, relaying a story of a recent client who, after becoming sober, became a beacon in the drug treatment community. He often hears good news stories on behalf of his clients who have been released. Guam’s community-oriented culture, however, cuts both ways. “Most of our clients confess!” he laments, somewhat jokingly. “They don’t want to fight the police. The prosecutors who come to work here from the mainland think that all of these confessions must be coerced, but then they go out into the field and go, ‘No, these guys really are confessing.’”


Despite his clients’ polite deference, Mr. Hattori remains steadfast in his pursuit of just treatment. His staff have told me that they frequently file motions to suppress in response to police indiscretion and misconduct. “It’s part of our job to keep the police straight,” he says.


When asked about his vision for the future, Mr. Hattori is quick to refer to the nationwide movement towards holistic defense. “That’s what we really need to get into,” he says, telling me the story of a recent client of his who was released after two years with no clothes, no identification, and no way to sign up for public assistance. Providing basic assistance and referral services to these clients “is the only way we’re going to stop seeing people back in the system,” he says.


Creating a social work program has been a challenge at PDSC. “We’re just going to keep adding social workers into our budget until we get the funding,” he laughs. “We really need one.”


As for my work at PDSC, Mr. Hattori expressed his desire to continue championing my efforts to establish a system for collecting meaningful data. “I think your role is really helpful, because you’re basically showing what we are tracking and what we’re not tracking. Eventually we are going to figure out what we should be tracking.” I nod, enthusiastically, and remind him of our metrics meeting next week, when we’ll discuss what work activities and outcomes he’d like to measure. “We can’t really ask Abacus [our case management system] how many people were confined when we were appointed. It’s like, hello! That’s got to be the first question!”


PDSC and AmeriCorps VISTA have a special, and perhaps historic, relationship. “You know, before [this office] became the Public Defender Service Corporation, it was a VISTA program, and so our first director came to Guam as a VISTA.” That VISTA alumnus is now the Executive Director of Guam Legal Services Corporation, one of the island’s civil legal aid providers. “It really seems to have come full circle,” he states, ending our interview on a note of appreciation for our mutual service."

-Carly, Guam VISTA member