Allegheny County's top public defender announced Friday he's running for judge. Elliot Howsie said he will compete for a seat on the county’s Court of Common Pleas in this year’s election.
At a campaign kickoff at the Allegheny County Courthouse, the attorney touted his experience both as a prosecutor and in criminal defense. A former assistant district attorney, Howsie became the first African-American to serve as chief public defender in Allegheny County in 2012.
Howsie told his supporters Friday that, under his leadership, the public defender’s office has taken unprecedented steps to reduce the local jail population. The office, he said, now provides its clients with representation at the earliest stages of criminal proceedings, including preliminary arraignments and bail hearings.
He credits these moves with helping indigent criminal defendants get out of jail before trial. In addition, he said, on-staff social workers help clients to access mental health treatment, drug and alcohol counseling, and other social services that reduce the chance of arrest.
Through a partnership with the county’s probation office, Howsie added, his office has helped clients to end probation early. He said public defenders successfully file 50 to 100 motions each month to terminate probation for ex-offenders who have completed half of their probation without violating the terms of their release.
Howsie said that if judges imposed shorter probation periods in the first place, they would help to shrink inmate populations.
“The people that are on probation – if they get arrested for a low-level offense, it increases the likelihood that they will end up in jail,” he said. “Typically 50 percent of our jail population consists of people who are there because of a probation violation.”
Howsie added, however, that after 14 months without violating probation, ex-convicts are unlikely to reoffend.
“And so, what ends up happening is ... defendants accused, they spend time on probation that doesn’t really benefit them, the taxpayer, or the probation officers in terms of their ability to do their day-to-day functions as PO’s – they have caseloads that they can’t manage,” Howsie said.
While Howsie focused Friday on reforms at his office, he was criticized last summer because the office has repeatedly underspent its budget since he became chief defender. County records show that, between 2013 and 2017, the public defender’s office ran an average surplus of more than $440,000. (Final budget numbers for 2018 are not yet available.)
Critics contend that the unspent money could pay for more public defenders, allowing individual clients to receive more attention.
Howsie attributed the surpluses to unforeseen savings. For instance, he said his office must set aside significant sums of money for capital cases, which tend to be costly. In cases where prosecutors choose not to pursue the death penalty, the office can save up to $50,000, according to Howsie.
“I have very little control over the way in which that money is spent on a yearly basis,” the chief defender said. “But the money that we do have, I use as well as possible.”
Howsie said staff turnover accounts for additional savings. He said six to seven attorneys resign or retire each year. Those defenders, Howsie said, usually earn higher salaries than the entry-level attorneys who replace them.
“When you look at the processes that are in place for hiring, you look at the difference in salary,” he continued, “you can recapture $200,000 or $300,000 fairly fast.”
He said this pattern has not affected the quality of his office’s work.
“When you talk about the resources that are needed to represent people effectively, we have them,” Howsie said. “When you talk about the number of attorneys that we need to manage the office, we have them. Our caseloads are not excessive. They’re in a place that [is] manageable.”
Campaign spokesman Lucas Bezerra noted that the public defender’s budget has increased each year since Howsie became chief. Indeed, county funding has risen from $7.6 million in 2012 to $10.2 million this year.
“Any underspending [by] the office has never impacted [Howsie’s] ability to advocate for and increase [the] budget,” Bezerra wrote in an email.
On Friday, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald credited Howsie for turning around a public defender’s office that had been notorious for severe dysfunction. Clients sued the office in 1996, accusing it of providing constitutionally inadequate representation. In a 2011 report, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union charged that problems at the office had persisted after the defendants' suit settled in 1998.
Fitzgerald recalled asking for recommendations on who to appoint as chief defender in 2012.
“The name Elliot Howsie kept coming up,” Fitzgerald said. “So we made a decision, and we took a chance on this young guy, Elliot Howsie.”
Fitzgerald said since then, Howsie has shown he is “the perfect character for a judge in the Court of Common Pleas.”
Other top local Democrats also spoke highly of the chief defender on Friday. They included state Sen. Jay Costa, state Rep. Austin Davis, state Rep. Ed Gainey, and Allegheny County Councilor DeWitt Walton.
The strong show of support could be critical for Howsie. The attorney withdrew from the 2017 race for common pleas court judge after failing to secure the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. Getting a nod from the committee entitles a candidate to appear on party "slate cards" handed out at the polls, which can have an impact on races that attract little attention otherwise.