Thursday, September 21, 2006

So You Want to Direct a Sentencing Commission?

As another of the series of posts we've been offering from folks with sentencing commission experience, we offer this from my old boss (not that he's old, too much), Paul O'Connell, former executive director of the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission, discussing his impressions of his work in those days.

Recently I was approached to offer my views to this website concerning how to effectively deal with “outside constituencies such as legislators, governor’s staff, press, etc.” As a former sentencing commission director, my experience allowed me to help develop commission work from its inception through six years of contentious legislative sessions focusing on criminal justice issues. The experience taught me valuable lessons both personally and professionally about dealing with the commission itself and outside constituencies, lessons that I would like to share.

My initial reaction to this request reminded me of a scene from Godfather III where Michael Corleone turns to Harrison and Connie and proclaims “ just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” But, having been on the periphery of sentencing commission work for the past five years the request, gladly, has given me the opportunity to reflect and evaluate my experience as an Executive Director. First, the worth of any Director, and commission for that matter, is only as good as the dedication, expertise and professionalism of his/her staff. I was fortunate to have a small group of knowledgeable, professional and for me, more importantly, loyal individuals who helped me navigate through the political mine fields of the legislature. My job suddenly became less complicated knowing that they were “watching my back.”

Secondly, the membership of the commission itself offered diverse perspectives on criminal law and sentencing, which provided great debate, discussion and at times great entertainment. Given the quality and quantity of the membership, egos and agendas abound. Rule number one is NOT interject your own ego and/or agenda into the mix. You will quickly learn that your agenda is irrelevant and your ego is inconsequential. You must be “ego-less.” The important thing to remember is you are staff to the commission and you serve at the pleasure of the commission (at least for me). There will be radicals at both ends of the spectrum on any commission. That’s the nature of sentencing commissions. Trust in your chairperson and those of like mind. Build your relationships with every member. Show them that you are loyal to them as a group and they will respond in kind.

There will be times when that loyalty will be tested. You will be probed and evaluated about your personal opinions and positions by “outsiders” with agendas of their own. Never expose your personnel feelings on work related issues. Frankly, they really don’t matter. You represent the Commission and its position. Once you expose your personal thoughts and positions to those outside the commission, you will be viewed in those terms, and as a result your work product will always be suspect. To quote Don Corleone to his son Sonny, "Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again." Words to live by.

Also, try to provide objective information to them for their consideration in making their decisions. There will be times when out of the blue a study will appear from some obscure university written by some recluse professor that will support a member's position or a particular group’s position on a certain matter. The next thing you will know, that study will be promoted as “mainstream” and therefore must be true. As the director, it is your responsibility to provide credible information both with a conservative and liberal bent. The members themselves will cipher the truth for themselves.

Finally always get the permission of the chairperson(s) and other key members of the commission before commission work products are released. In dealing with the press, provide them with summaries and talking points, which have been pre-approved by the chairman. It provides a consistent message to the public and others as well as your commission members. It also provides “cover “ to the executive director.

In looking back at my experience, there were certain things that I should have done differently such as gone to law school or gained a Ph.D. or perhaps even not shown my liberal (eastern) bias in a conservative world. It would have certainly given me more “legitimacy" (being accused of being a “carpetbagger” was not a particularly high point in my life). But, if you were to ask me if I had regretted the experience, the answer is certainly not. I found those six years to be the best of my professional career both in terms of the quality of work I did and completed, the quality of friends I made, the professional acquaintances I met and the leadership I witnessed. It was certainly an exciting time to be in the commission business. If you were to ask me if I were willing to come back into the “house of pain” they call the legislature, the answer is: You bet.

I’m not sure I addressed the request made of me, but it sure was fun to reflect. I hope this is helpful for those of you out there in the business. I value your work.

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