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New report: Allegheny County indigent defense system needs ‘fundamental overhaul’

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Allegheny County’s system for providing legal representation to poor people accused of crimes needs a “fundamental overhaul,” according to a new report from the Allegheny Lawyers Initiative for Justice (ALIJ).

Some more money wouldn’t hurt either.

Legal aid for people who cannot afford their own attorney is a constitutional right. And most criminal defendants who can’t afford a legal defense, sometimes known as indigent defendants, receive representation from the county’s Office of the Public Defender. But critics say a lack of resources puts poor defendants at a disadvantage, despite efforts to shore up the system.

“Over the past few years, the public defender's office has made some positive strides. But when you start with awful, better than awful is still not good enough,” said ALIJ president Rob Perkins. “And too many people today still receive not what the Constitution requires, which is a fair defense for criminal charges.”

Perkins, a former public defender and attorney who takes some court-appointed work, notes that hourly rates for court-appointed lawyers were increased slightly last summer. But they’re still paid far less than their private counterparts, and rates are capped based on the alleged offense and whether the case goes to trial or not.

That approach, critics say, creates unreasonable workloads and what the report refers to as “perverse incentives”: An attorney might be forced to choose between putting in the number of hours required to prepare a case while knowing they won’t be paid for all their work, or working only the time for which they’re paid, risking an unfair outcome for their client.

Perkins said that’s just one violation of the American Bar Association’s Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System, which outlines criteria meant to ensure that the justice system does not “punish people for the ‘crime’ of being poor.” Perkins also stressed the importance of ongoing training for public defenders, who currently may juggle dozens of cases at once.

“What we're advocating [for] here is for fair defense funding, to have systems in place to ensure that the defense attorneys have the independence and the resources they need to provide an adequate defense so someone doesn't suffer just because of their poverty,” Perkins said.

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The report recommends several “safety-minded reforms” meant to modernize the county’s Office of the Public Defender and court-appointed attorney systems and bring them up to national standards.

That would entail assuring a parity of resources between public defenders and prosecutors in the District Attorney’s office. But the report also recommends implementing a more holistic approach that addresses substance use disorders and mental health issues alongside the alleged crime. It calls on the county to hire more social workers and advocates to work closely with public defenders and their clients.

The report said such changes should be modeled on successful programs, like those used in Delaware County and the Bronx.

Not every indigent defendant receives a lawyer from the public defender’s office: In case of a conflict of interest, the court appoints an attorney in private practice or in the Office of Conflict Counsel, which was not covered in the report.

But the ultimate goal, Perkins said, is that “the person's going to be rehabilitated and hopefully not come into the system again. And in order to do that, we need to address the underlying issues.”

‘Desperate need’ for statewide change

Public defender offices have long been at a disadvantage in Pennsylvania, which until late last year was one of just two states where funding for indigent defense was provided only at the county level.

Last year, the state legislature ultimately approved $7.5 million to help counties pay for indigent defense. A state-appointed committee recently rolled out a formula to divvy up those funds, though counties must apply for a grant to receive their share. Allegheny County could collect a maximum of $124,527 to pay for salaries, recruitment and retention efforts, training and more, according to committee guidelines.

Some advocates say that’s not enough.

“There is a desperate need for statewide reform,” said ACLU Pennsylvania legal director Vic Walczak. The ACLU sued the county over deficiencies in the public defender system nearly three decades ago, and while Walczak had not seen the ALIJ report, he echoed many of its concerns while speaking generally about the system today.

In other states, support for indigent defense “typically involves an infusion of money from the state to the counties,” he said. “But it also includes some leadership, like potentially creating caseload limits, organizing ongoing trainings and … potentially providing assistance with things like appeals. There's lots of things that could be done at the state level to ease the burden on county public defenders.”

Perkins and Walczak were quick to note that many public defenders in Allegheny County are doing their best, despite limited resources. But Walczak warned that an under-resourced public-defender system can cause “an awful lot of harm in the community” which “plays out in the forms of worse outcomes,” from longer sentences to innocent people being found guilty.

Perkins added that he’s hopeful reforms will be implemented now that the county has new leadership across the system. County Executive Sara Innamorato, President Judge Susan Evashavik DiLucente and recently appointed Chief Public Defender Lena Bryan-Henderson have all expressed willingness to work on these issues, he said.

“These are proven solutions that have been implemented in other cities,” Perkins said. “We've just never made these issues our priority locally.”

In a statement, Innamorato spokesperson Abigail Gardner said, “Our office has tremendous respect for Rob Perkins and his expertise and passion for the topic. We look forward to reading the report and understanding the recommendations it sets forth.”

You can find the full report here.

Updated: May 16, 2024 at 2:27 PM EDT
Updated to include comment from the Innamorato administration.
Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at