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Politics & Government

County Council Members Call for Investigation of Public Defender’s Office

Allegheny County Council members William Russell Robinson and Amanda Green Hawkins will introduce a motion calling on Chief Executive Dan Onorato, County Manager Jim Flynn and Allegheny County Chief Public Defender Michael Machen to meet publicly with the council about the system.

This follows a scathing report from the ACLU claiming that Allegheny County fails to provide adequate legal representation to poor criminal defendants. Robinson said with thousands of people in the county depending on the legal representation, this poor level of service is unacceptable.

"We've heard stories from all across the country about people being incarcerated who are innocent, and I don't think we should take that lightly in Allegheny County. I'm not suggesting that anyone in our county has been incarcerated unlawfully, but I do think we need to move very quickly to give them speedy justice, to give them what they deserve," said Robinson.

The ACLU report said dozens of complaints come in every year – most of them from people who say they sit in jail for months before meeting with an attorney and often don't even know who is representing them, sometimes finding out right before their trial.

That's a charge Machen denies. He said someone from his office talks with each defendant it represents within 24 hours of jailing. The office handles an estimated 10,000 cases a year.

Robinson said the ACLU report only gives one side of the story, which is why he is calling on county officials to meet with the council and the public to give their side. The motion will be introduced at the County Council's November first meeting, and if approved a meeting on the department could take place as early as mid-November.

"Right in the middle of our budget season, it's very appropriate because we will be discussing all of the county departments," said Robinson, "this gives us a chance to segue into a real analysis into a department that, for better or for worse, is in the headlines and we need to find out what's going on."