Defender Association Response to Kensington “Sweep”

PHILADELPHIA–“The Defender Association fully realizes that immediate action is needed to address the conditions in Kensington. But the City’s May 8 “sweep” of homeless people signals a return to draconian and ineffective crime and drug policies. We are also troubled by the lack of communication we have received from the city in advance of these actions. This information vacuum is particularly concerning as it potentially compromises our ability to serve our clients.

 

“To be sure, the Defender Association and the Parker Administration have very different policy perspectives. We have long believed that it’s a bad idea to rely on the criminal legal system to solve a public health crisis. The unintended harms of the planned “jail vs. treatment” strategy outweigh any derived benefits for people in addiction. The city’s action’s also threaten to overwhelm the court and jail system, and will likely shift the current problem to other neighborhoods that haven’t been receiving the same amount of attention.

 

“Despite our efforts to be included in the discussions around Kensington, the Defender Association has received little information about the city’s plans. This is troubling because our office represents a significant percentage of adult men and women from Kensington. From 2017 to 2022 we provided services for nearly 12,000 clients from this neighborhood. Getting timely details about upcoming plans is critical for preparing our attorneys and social workers to serve what will undoubtedly be an uptick in cases stemming from the increased law enforcement activity.

 

“We can discuss and debate policy. But there’s no question that anyone arrested for a crime–in Kensington or elsewhere–has a right to legal counsel. As the city’s public defender, we feel it is incumbent upon the city to include our office in any discussion that relies so heavily on our justice system.”

 

“As we work toward solutions that will benefit everyone impacted by the activities in Kensington, the Defender Association looks forward to a more open dialogue with city officials and stakeholders.”

 

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2024 Junior Defender Internships

Are you (or do you know)  a high school student who will be 18 before June 10, 2024? Do you want to learn about our criminal legal system while getting PAID? Apply to our Junior Defender Internship Program!

 

Junior Defenders will learn about our justice system through workshops; observing Philly’s courts in action; taking field trips and more. Click here to learn more about Junior Defenders. Watch the video below to hear from last year’s interns!

 

 

There are TWO internship sessions: June 10 – July 19, 2024; and July 22 – August 30, 2024.

 

Interested? Use the online form to apply TODAY for this internship opportunity! Application Deadline is Tuesday, April 30!
Questions? Contact Tamira McCurdy: tmccurdy@philadefender.org

 

Defender FY 2025 Budget Testimony

FY 2025 Budget Request: More resources to support Philly's Youth!

 

On April 16, 2024, Chief Defender Keisha Hudson & Deputy Defender Sarah Allen testified before City Council about our request for a $15 million budget increase in FY 2025.

 

These funds would largely be dedicated to hiring more attorneys and social workers for our child and youth clients, as well as salary increases to bring our attorneys to parity with other city agencies.

 

Read the full budget testimony here

 

Download budget request slides

 

Support Letters for Philly Defenders Budget Proposal

 

The Defender Association is grateful for the amazing support we've received from our community partners, elected officials and other organizations working toward a better justice system, and public safety for all!

 

Community Support letter: over 20 organizations added their names to a letter in support of a budget increase for the work we do with justice system-involved children and youth.

 

Read the letter here

 

Philadelphia Bar Association letter: Thanks to the Philadelphia Bar Association for supporting our attorneys and the work we do all year round. We especially appreciate their support of our budget request

 

Read the Philly Bar Association's letter here.

 

Video: Defender Association Budget Testimony

Defender 90th Anniversary Highlights

On April 4, 2024, we’re celebrating 90 years of representing Philly adults and youth with a very special event at the Constitution Center. All are welcome to attend and celebrate along with the Defender’s past and present leaders, and many more elected officials and luminaries who began their careers at the Defender Association.

 

Help us celebrate 90 years of public defense in Philly, as we look to grow the next generation of Philly Defenders! Click the links below to learn how you can take part in the celebration!

 

Details, tickets and sponsorship information here

 

Press Release: Pushing Back on Misleading Crime Narratives

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 18, 2024
PRESS CONTACT: Rabiah Alicia Burks, r.burks@nlada.org, (202) 452-0620

 

Public Defense Chiefs Push Back on Misleading Crime Narratives that Are Driving Policy This Election Year

Speaking at Gideon Day press briefing, chiefs encourage reporters to speak to public defenders for better-informed stories, and discuss ways public defenders promote community safety.

 

WASHINGTON — Chief public defenders from across the country gathered today for a discussion on the state of public defense during a crime-focused election year. Co-sponsored by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA), the panel discussion commemorated Gideon Day, the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which recognizes the constitutional right to public defense for people who cannot afford counsel. A recording of the event can be found here, and a fact sheet/resource guide for reporters is available here.

 

“Public defender offices across the country are wholly under-resourced, while prosecutors and law enforcement are funded at several times the rate, and this funding discrepancy leads to greater disparities and injustices within the legal system,” said April Frazier Camara, president and CEO of NLADA. “Misleading narratives on crime and safety are fueling these policy decisions. Public defenders are joining forces to fight back against these fear-based tactics and to combat these practices.”

 

The discussion was moderated by Civil Rights Corps Founder Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights lawyer and former public defender who has written extensively about “copaganda,” or the manipulation of media by police and prosecutors. 

 

“Public defenders are dedicated to safe communities, and their voices should not go unheard in the national conversation about crime and community safety,” said Karakatsanis. “The extraordinary focus by the media on low-level-crimes reported by police has the effect of manipulating what all of us think and feel are the most urgent problems in our society.  It distracts us from the greatest dangers that we face and obscures safety solutions right in front of our eyes. Public defenders can be an invaluable counterbalance to that.”

 

“Providing indigent individuals with fierce representation in court itself fosters safer communities—by guarding against wrongful convictions and by advocating against incarceration, which is incredibly destabilizing for families and communities,” said San Francisco elected Public Defender Mano Raju. “Our office also provides services that address the root causes of interactions with the criminal system, such as our MAGIC youth programs, our College Pathway Project, which helps formerly incarcerated people go to college and our End the Cycle program, which connects newly arrested people to services.”

 

Many reporters accept without question the information and crime statistics that police and prosecutors give them, and in turn, their stories are used to bolster policy decisions that benefit law enforcement and drive incarceration. Journalists do a disservice to their readers when their stories are more about feelings than facts, according to the panel.  

 

“We have seen this play out in New York State, where the Governor has rolled back our historic bail reform law on multiple occasions,” said New York County Defender Services Executive Director Stan Germán. “Politicians have succumbed to a fear-mongering campaign launched by proponents of mass incarceration rather than focus on the data analysis which clearly demonstrated the success of a bail law that reduced the racial and wealth disparities in our criminal legal system.”

 

Funding is an ongoing struggle for public defender offices in large cities as well as rural areas, despite the fact that basic fairness should dictate that prosecutors and defenders receive equal funding. 

 

“In most states, funding for DAs is two to one compared to public defenders, dollar for dollar,” said Alameda County Chief Defender Brendon Woods. “That’s not a fair fight. Another significant factor is the work police departments do in support of the prosecution, essentially providing a free investigatory wing to every prosecutor’s office in the state. If you fund systems that incarcerate people, more incarceration will result. And incarceration drains public resources away from solutions that address the root causes of crime like housing, jobs, and education.”

 

“One of our biggest challenges is retaining experienced attorneys, who often leave public defense for better-paying jobs in other sectors. If we had pay parity with other legal offices, we’d be able to keep more veteran lawyers, which means better representation to our clients,” said Defender Association of Philadelphia Chief Defender Keisha Hudson. “I think public defenders have tremendous value to the media because we have the insight and data to share the full story of our clients—not just as suspects, but as full human beings.”

 

“In rural communities, recruitment is challenging due to vast legal deserts. A shortage of lawyers makes workloads for existing public defenders extremely high,” said Iowa State Public Defender Jeff Wright. “We have difficulty competing with the salaries prosecutors and other legal professions are able to offer.” 

 

With greater funding parity, public defender offices are better able to engage in community outreach and to expand programs that prevent people from being funneled into the system in the first place, said Orleans Public Defenders Director of Community Outreach and Lead Organizer Robert Jones.

 

“Our clients are the community, so we need to be part of that,” said Jones, who is formerly incarcerated. “Community members need to see PDs everywhere. Our office partners with community organizations to assist people when they are in the criminal legal system, and moreover to keep them from having contact with the system.” 

 

This press briefing was sponsored by the NLADA, the American Council of Chief Defenders, the Black Public Defender Association, the Gault Center, San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, Defender Association of Philadelphia, the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, Orleans Public Defender’s Office, and New York County Defender Services. This event is part of NLADA’s ongoing initiative, “Fighting for the AccUSed: The Public Defender Campaign for Safe, Secure Communities.” The Fighting for the AccUSed campaign is changing perceptions about public defenders in communities and the press. It also seeks to build public support for the passage of the federal EQUAL Defense Act (HR 3758) and the Quality Defense Act (S.850), and urges the Biden Administration to support other federal, state, and local efforts to fund public defense.

 

Public defenders are integral parts of the communities they serve and include social workers, investigators, community engagement professionals, and lawyers. Nationwide, about 80 percent of individuals who are accused of crimes in the legal system are represented by a public defender. 

 

The National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), founded in 1911, is America’s oldest and largest nonprofit association devoted to excellence in the delivery of legal services to those who cannot afford counsel. NLADA has pioneered access to justice at the national, state and local levels, playing a leadership role in the creation of public defender systems and other important institutions from The Sentencing Project to the Legal Services Corporation. A leader in the development of national standards for civil legal aid and public defense, NLADA also provides advocacy, training, and technical assistance for equal justice advocates across the country.

 

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Philly Defenders argue before the PA Supreme Court

Defender Association attorneys will be arguing two cases before the PA Supreme Court on March 5 & 6

 

On March 5 and 6, Philly Defender attorneys Katherine Muns and Len Sosnov will be arguing two cases before the PA Supreme Court. Commonwealth v. Saunders and Commonwealth v. Berry are important cases that will have an impact on our clients and Philadelphia’s criminal justice system. More information and links to watch live proceedings are below:

 

Commonwealth v. Saunders (approx 10:00am): The case is the Defender Association’s appeal about whether Commonwealth v. Alexander prevents police from entering a car without a warrant after a vehicle stop to seize a gun or other contraband they can see in the car from the outside. Or, whether as the Superior Court held,  the “plain view exception” permits officers to enter the car and seize the contraband without getting a warrant. The Court’s decision will likely impact a large number of cases for Defender clients.

 

Click here to watch live on March 5

 


 

Commonwealth v. Berry  (9:30am): Pennsylvania law has been inconsistent about when and how a sentencing court can look at and consider a defendant’s prior arrest record. This case argues that due process and the Sentencing Code bar a trial court from considering a defendant’s bare arrest record in imposing a greater sentence.

 

Click here to watch live on March 6

Statement on Alexander Spencer Shooting

PHILADELPHIA—”The Defender Association of Philadelphia sends its condolences to Alexander Spencer’s family, friends and community. We join the public call for a thorough and transparent investigation into the incident that led to his death on January 26.

 

“As public defenders, we know it’s a mistake to jump to conclusions before all the evidence has come to light. But what’s been reported so far sounds too similar to tragedies that have played out in Philly and across the country–right down to the police narrative that seems to shift with every new piece of information revealed.

 

“Every time there’s an incident like this, it creates more mistrust between the police and the neighborhoods they’re sworn to protect. If we want our communities to be safe, we need to explore and invest in interventions that help reduce, not increase, the number of interactions between law enforcement and our communities.

 

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Apply Today: HBCU Community Engagement Fellows

About the Program:

 

The Defender Association is one of the public defender offices participating in the Black Public Defenders Association Community Engagement Fellowship. The fellowship is a 12-week summer program that pairs Black undergraduate and graduate HBCU students, who aspire to do racial equity and community defense work, with public defender offices.

 

This fully paid internship opportunity will offer hands-on lessons about addressing systemic issues of racism that plague the legal system while inspiring young people to achieve their educational goals and consider careers in public defense. The internship opportunity will be promoted to Black undergraduates and graduate students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

 

Visit the BPDA website for more details

HBCU Students: Apply Today!

The application deadline is Friday, February 2. 

 

Ski Mask Ban: Criminalizing Philly’s Youth

The Defender Association of Philadelphia represents over 70% of the people arrested for crimes in the City of Philadelphia. Most of our clients are Black and Brown people, and all of them are poor enough to qualify for the free legal services we provide. 

Our child and young adult clients are 90% Black, and represent a majority of the young people who would be impacted by Philadelphia’s new legislation banning the wearing of ski masks in some public locations. As the agency who represents the population being targeted by this legislation, the Defender Association is opposed to Philadelphia’s ski mask ban. 

 

Our experience as justice system stakeholders tells us that these kinds of “dress code” solutions are ineffective crime deterrents. Worse, they establish an additional pretext for law enforcement to surveil young people of color, and will funnel more of our city’s youth into the justice system, which will almost surely compromise their socioeconomic futures.

The Problem

Philadelphia and other cities are under an imperative to find solutions to violent crime, retail theft and other criminogenic activity that often involves young people. For years, in an effort to respond to the concerns of constituents, business owners and neighborhood residents, some elected officials have historically sought to combat these issues by trying to legislate aspects of behavior, such as the way young people dress or congregate. Philadelphia’s new law banning ski masks in certain public spaces is an example of this misguided thinking. 

Not an effective crime deterrent

There is a complete absence of any research conducted after 1980 that suggests these types of laws are effective at reducing crimes committed by or against young people. Philly’s ski mask ban is likely to yield the same public safety results as similar policies that criminalize ordinary youthful behavior, like being in public after hours or standing in small groups. These are knee-jerk polices policies that, while popular, have never been a meaningful solution to youth crime or victimization. 

Unintended negative long-term consequences

One of the immediate negative impacts of the ski mask ban is that it will subject the families of young people in Philly–the nation’s poorest big city–to hundreds of dollars in fines for what is essentially a dress code violation. 

 

In the long term, criminalizing the behaviors and wardrobes of young people, these policies have the unintended effect of increasing the number of interactions between youth and law enforcement, as they give additional reasons for police to interact with young people in an investigatory manner for behavior that isn’t even criminal on its face. This kind of monitoring invites a doubling down on surveillance tactics (e.g. drones, facial recognition, etc.) that will likely be deployed in poor Black and Brown communities. 

 

In the end, this legislation will expose more young people to the traumatic, and often permanent, damage that can be caused by our justice system.

Overlooking root causes–and impacts of crime in communities

Many of our young clients have told us that they wear ski masks, not with the intention of committing a crime, but because they are, quite simply, fashionable at the moment. 

 

On a darker note, many of our clients have shared that they wear them at times because they’re afraid of being recognized by other people who intend to do them harm. At best, this trauma is callously ignored by laws that focus on the ski mask itself instead of examining why our young people choose to wear them. At worst, these policies can be viewed as a nod to commercial interests who prioritize profits over the rights of Black and Brown youth. 

Clothing and accessories are not major contributors to crime. 

One of the many reasons “dress code” laws don’t work is because they fail to address the range of complex factors that contribute to acts of crime and violence. Most of our youth clients we represent have also been victims of violent crime, or live in areas heavily impacted by violence. 

 

The Defender Association advocates for public safety solutions that emphasize mitigating the effects of poverty, such as housing instability, food insecurity, and lack of access to education. These conditions do far more to foster criminal activity than access to ski masks. 

 

Rather than short-term, band-aid responses to crime, we advocate for sustained investment in solutions that will ensure our young people have enough food to eat; a good education and access to healthcare; mental health counseling; and other programs that will allow them to feel safe in their homes and communities. 

Examples of more effective youth justice legislation: 

Legislation like the ski mask ban represents a backward step for justice system-involved young people. There are examples of legislation that more effectively addresses juvenile justice reform. One example is HB 1381, which is being considered by lawmakers in Harrisburg. This legislation would:

 

  • expand opportunities for youth to be diverted away from the criminal legal system; 
  • eliminate fines and fees including escalating financial penalties for non-compliance; and
  • increase protection for youth subjected to police interrogation by safeguarding their constitutionally guaranteed rights to counsel and to remain silent; 

 

HB 1381 represents an approach that acknowledges the need to reduce the number of adjudicated youth. Laws like the ski mask ban take the opposite approach by bringing more young people into a rigid and often traumatizing judicial system. 

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