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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Defender 90th Anniversary

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

 

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. 

Defender Statement on PA Legislature’s Passage of Criminal Justice Bills

PHILADELPHIA—“On December 13, the PA Legislature passed justice system reform bills that represent significant and positive steps toward criminal justice reform. We celebrate these milestones as victories for justice system-involved Pennsylvanians. At the same time, lawmakers also passed legislation that doesn’t go far enough, or, in some cases represent setbacks in our efforts to create a justice system that works for everyone.    

 

“For the first time, the state budget includes funding for public defender offices across the Commonwealth. This is a major budget provision that removes Pennsylvania’s distinction of being the only state that doesn’t provide funding for indigent defense.   

 

“The Defender Association is particularly thrilled about the passage of HB 689 (Clean Slate Expansion). Entanglement with the criminal justice system justice can create unnecessary lifelong obstacles to housing, career and job opportunities. HB 689 allows Pennsylvanians to seal felony records for most theft and drug convictions after 13 crime-free years. This is a major win for the thousands of people who’ve served their time and are working hard to build a better future for themselves and their families. 

 

“Unfortunately, while we’re appreciative of the amendments made to HB 838 (probation reform bill), the legislation still falls far short of what the Defender Association would want for the tens of thousands of clients we represent in cases related to probation violations.     

 

“We’re particularly concerned about the passage of SB 140, which allows the Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute crimes occurring ‘within a public transportation center,’ effectively eliminating local and duly elected District Attorneys from the equation. We also feel that the Legislature missed opportunities to make meaningful changes to the Commonwealth’s juvenile justice and medical parole laws.    

 

“While we certainly don’t support every bill that passed last night, the Defender Association appreciates the energy that is being focused on changes to Pennsylvania’s justice system. We remain committed to working with our community allies, and sharing what we learn from data and our clients’ experiences with our state legislators. Ultimately, we believe these conversations will lead to improved criminal justice reform legislation in the future.”     

 

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Defender Joins Protest of ICE at Philly Courthouses

Chief Defender Keisha Hudson, joined a press conference organized by Juntos to protest Federal ICE agents’ practice of detaining undocumented clients, witnesses and family members outside of Philly’s courtrooms. Full remarks below: 

 

The Defender Association of Philadelphia represents over 70% of the people accused of crimes in the city. All of our clients are poor, most of them are people of color and many of them undocumented city residents.

 

All of these groups have one thing in common: a fraught relationship with our justice system. As public defenders, it is our job to provide the best possible legal counsel to our clients.

 

But mistrust in our system often makes it difficult to get them, as well as witnesses from the community and even supporters and family members, to fully participate in the legal process.

 

Enforcement of immigration laws does not mean interfering with our ability to deliver justice for our clients and communities. But that’s exactly what’s happening here.

 

ICE’s practice of literally seizing individuals as they step foot outside of this courthouse undermines the court’s ability to provide equal access to justice and shatters confidence in the safety of the courthouse and the judicial system–not just among the undocumented, but the general public.

 

We’ve raised this issue with the leadership of the First Judicial District. We’re hopeful that the Courts will work with us to find solutions to curb the very serious threat ICE’s actions pose to the integrity and effectiveness of Philly’s justice system.

Defender Association/Partners For Justice Featured in Philadelphia Citizen

Check out this story in the Philadelphia Citizen featuring the work of our Partners for Justice colleagues! Learn more about the partnership here.

 

Defender Statement in Support of HB1410

PHILADELPHIA–“Pennsylvania has archaic and overly punitive sentencing laws that have little positive impact on public safety in the Commonwealth. Like most aspects of our judicial system, the harshest impacts are felt by Pennsylvania’s Black and Brown incarcerated population.


“Our experience working in communities teaches us that returning citizens are an incredible resource and source of positive guidance for young people in our neighborhoods.
Right now there are around 2,000 commutation-eligible people serving time in Pennsylvania prisons, costing taxpayers millions of dollars every year. By requiring a simple majority of the board to commute sentences, HB1410 will give these citizens a much-needed second chance to show that they are far more valuable at home than behind prison walls.


“The Defender Association of Philadelphia urges the PA Legislature to pass HB1410, and brighten the future for incarcerated people and their families.”

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Video: PAU’s Mike Mellon on PhillyCAM

On October 2, the Defenders’ Police Accountability Unit Chief Mike Mellon spoke with Danielle Wilson on PhillyCAM about some of the issues related to policing and public safety in Philadelphia.

 

Learn More About the Police Accountability Unit

 

Watch the video below:

 

Follow us: @PhillyDefenders