By LORI A. CARTER

Known for a wardrobe that’s just as sharp as her intellect, Kathleen Pozzi has left an indelible mark on the Sonoma County Public Defender’s office.

At the helm since May 2013, Pozzi retired last week after modernizing the office with a “whole-person-centered” philosophy of legal defense for those accused of crimes and unable to afford attorneys.

That holistic approach to justice starts at the front desk, a change Pozzi created.

“When a client comes to our front desk and says ‘I’m getting evicted, I have nowhere to go, what am I going to do?’,” she said. “Now, instead of saying ‘We don’t do that kind of law, there’s the door,’ we would say, ‘Let me find someone who can help you.’

“Sometimes a victim comes to our counter and says my boyfriend beat me, I want to report it. In the past, it would be, sorry, can’t help, call the police. Now, we ask ‘Where do you live? Let’s call the police department.’ Or we send them to the Family Justice Center.”

But the effort to help someone in a legal bind — or keep them from repeating the same destructive behaviors — goes far beyond customer service.

“With our clients, we look at the person as a whole,” she said. “Where were you raised? What schools did you go to? We’re trying to figure out why do you keep committing thefts, why do you keep using drugs, why won’t you take your mental health medications? Why did it all start? What age?

“You’ve got this rock that’s gathering all this moss and it gets bigger and bigger,” she said. “Let’s figure out how to peel off the layers and get to the root. That’s what our attorneys will do now.”

Introducing her at a send off last week behind the Sonoma County Superior Courthouse, fellow public defender Scott Fishman said Pozzi was “on the forefront of issues before they became issues of the day.”

Racial and social justice, homelessness, bail reform, mental health issues — all are weighty matters that could overwhelm a young lawyer starting out with hopes of helping people.

Instead, Pozzi believes that addressing those problems is part of the overall goal of justice, that it isn’t just defending someone in a court of law.

And she walks the talk. Her car is packed with zip-top bags of essential supplies for someone down on their luck: power bars, applesauce, tuna, shampoo, toothpaste. She’ll jump out of her car to hand one to someone on a street corner.

The raspy voiced Pozzi, 61, comes from three generations of ranchers in Sonoma County — sheep on her mother’s side and dairy cows on her father’s — and was the first college graduate on either side.

As a child, she watched Perry Mason valiantly defend the falsely accused on television. When she was in seventh grade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark decision Gideon vs. Wainwright that the Constitution requires states provide defense attorneys to criminal defendants who cannot afford lawyers themselves.

“I looked at it not as case law, but as a story, like that’s not fair. People like Mr. Gideon needed a lawyer,” she said. “It elevated for me what a public defender is. I always said I wanted to be a public defender.”

But anyone who’s ever seen Pozzi in court or with a challenging client could tell she’s no bleeding heart.

Striding determinedly through the halls of the courthouse in high heels, colorful dresses and matching jewelry, Pozzi’s no-nonsense attitude shows she’s not buying the stories some of her clients tell. She doesn’t mince words telling them to cut it out.

“I had to smack him around to make him listen to me,” she told one judge about a client who, figuratively, needed a reset.

“I make people be responsible for themselves,” she said. “They come in and say, ‘I couldn’t come to court because I was afraid of Covid.’ B.S., you didn’t come to court because you slept in because you were loaded.

“I’m not babying these people. I’m trying to get them to take responsibility for themselves,” she said, forcing them to hear that what they do affects other people’s lives negatively.

Some have argued with her that their drug use isn’t hurting anyone but themselves. Pozzi will have none of that.

“No, you’re hurting your family, your friends, the community because you’re costing money, you’re on the street, making messes, pissing people off,” she said.

“I have faith in people, but I’m not naive either.”

Pozzi is buoyed by the truly righteous cases she won, where innocent people were charged with crimes, but also helping people get out of a revolving door of crime and other damaging behaviors

“If I affect one person out 20, I’m doing well,” she figures.

The “before and after pictures” are the best reward, she said. Former clients — some from decades ago — call her or send her notes thanking her for setting them on a better path. One even had her face tattooed on his arm. Others run up to her in the grocery store to let her know they’re doing well.

Pozzi’s adversary across the courtroom aisle, District Attorney Jill Ravitch, said the colleague she’s worked with for more than 30 years undoubtedly has helped far more because of her dogged nature.

“The great thing about Kathleen is that she never gives up. Never, never, never gives up,” she said. “She is a champion for her clients and this county.”

In her retirement, Pozzi will continue to serve on several community boards she sits on and volunteers for, and she will continue teaching at Empire College law school.

Retired Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum, one of Pozzi’s legal influences, said the legal community was, and is, lucky to have Pozzi.

“She is an incredible professor,” he said, praising her ability to remember everything she reads but also teach it to young law students. “She is an absolute treasure at Empire. So many attorneys in town owe a debt to her.”

Pozzi came to work at the Sonoma County Public Defender’s office as a young law student still in school. After passing the bar, she was hired as a public defender and rose up through the ranks, ultimately leading a staff of 54 and managing the county department’s $14.5 million budget.

The office handles about 12,000 cases a year, including 2,100 felonies and 500 juvenile cases. One of her chief deputies, Jeff Mitchell, is filling her role at least until the county hires a permanent replacement.

Pozzi worked in the office for 35 years, and she’d not have it any other way.

“From the day I stepped foot here in 1986 as a law clerk in law school, I really knew right then and there, there was no turning back. I was going to be here forever,” she said. “Forever seems like so long ago, but just like yesterday.

“I not one single time did I wake up in the morning and say I don’t want to go to work today.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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