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The Allegheny County Public Defender’s office is in better shape than it was three years ago but ‘a lot remains to be done’

"The office is not perfect, but it’s much better. We’ve come a long way"

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Many of the defendants who pass through the Allegheny County Courthouse are represented by public defenders - PHOTO BY MIKE SCHWARZ
  • Photo by Mike Schwarz
  • Many of the defendants who pass through the Allegheny County Courthouse are represented by public defenders

When Elliot Howsie took control of the Allegheny County Public Defender’s office more than three years ago, it was a department that had long been mired in turmoil and controversy.

The office had been involved in a 1996 class-action lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union alleging that the office failed to provide constitutionally adequate representation. And a year before Howsie’s appointment, the ACLU released a report further criticizing the office. Those critiques continued for about a year after Howsie was hired, according to community activists who spoke out at the time. 

Since then, however, the criticism has gone silent. Several of the issues that once plagued the public defender’s office, which provides legal representation for indigent clients and juveniles, seem to have been resolved. And some former critics cite the progress Howsie has made and praise his work.

During the past three years, Howsie has made significant changes in the areas of attorney supervision and instruction. He’s also worked to improve the level of communication between clients and attorneys.

 "The office is not perfect, but it’s much better. We’ve come a long way," says Howsie. "I’m very proud of the work we’ve done."

Though much quieter than they used to be, those who are still critical of the office say poor funding and an inadequate representation structure have hampered some of Howsie’s efforts. And they worry that some of the barriers originally identified by the ACLU persist to the detriment of those the office serves. 

"There are a lot of people who said it would never change without huge amounts of money and doubling the budget," says Howsie. "My position has always been we have to do a better job with what we’ve been given. We’ve been able to do a good job with our resources — we’ve been able to turn this office around."

In the 1996 class-action lawsuit, which resulted in a settlement, and a subsequent October 2011 ACLU report, A Job Left Undone: Allegheny County’s Fork in the Road, management and training were cited as key deficiencies in the office. Howsie agreed, and he says he used the report to make improvements in these areas to strengthen his public defenders. 

There’s a stronger hierarchy in the office now, Howsie says. New attorneys start out in preliminary hearings before moving up to trials, and cases are allocated based on an attorney’s skill level. 

"We always have our most experienced attorneys working with our newest attorneys," says Howsie. "We also hand-pick the cases initially. Until an attorney gets up to speed, we give them cases where the charges are not as significant, because you don’t want a person to walk in day one and have attempted murder or rape. In the past, attorneys would be thrown into trials."

New training for public defenders includes mandatory two-week training in preliminary hearings for newcomers before they ever see the inside of a courtroom. There’s also a 12-week course for trial attorneys. And Howsie says there are signs of how this training has aided clients. One example is in the area of bond modification, which helps clients get released from jail before their trial.

"We’ve been able to get a lot of people out of jail who normally would’ve sat in jail for upwards of six months until they were ready to see a judge for an actual trial date," explains Howsie.

And there’s more oversight, too. Prior to Howsie’s tenure, the office had one director and three deputy directors; now there are 11 supervisors in total. This includes a deputy for each division: appeals, juvenile, trial and pre-trial.

"Now you have more supervision, more instruction, the ability to make sure all of attorneys have the appropriate resources to effectively serve all our clients," says Shanicka Kennedy, the office’s chief deputy. "You don’t have one attorney trying to supervise over 20 to 25 attorneys. You now have an additional level of supervision to make sure our clients are being effectively represented and our attorneys aren’t being thrown to the wind."

The 2011 ACLU report also said that systematic violations were preventing clients from receiving adequate representation in the public defender’s office. It criticized the level of communication between attorneys and clients. 

"It was much of the same problems we had been pressing the public defender on after our settlement in 1998," says Pennsylvania ACLU Legal Director Vic Walczak, who would only comment on prior investigations into the public defender’s office because he says his organization hasn’t focused on it for two years. "People were still meeting their lawyers for the first time at the preliminary hearing. The lawyer needs to do an assessment of the client’s case in order to effectively negotiate that case or prepare for trial. That’s a significant problem." 

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