Allegheny County public defender's office still facing critics
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One year after a new chief public defender took over for Allegheny County, the office has seen a budget increase of $1.4 million, an increase in the number of supervisors in place and a shift to using better technology to help track cases through the legal system.
Still, complaints about management, a "toxic" environment in the office and a lack of independence from the judiciary remain.
Elliot Howsie, who took over March 19, 2012, said it remains a work in progress but that great strides have already been made.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who appointed Mr. Howsie to the position amid hearty criticism about the way the office had been functioning from years before and the threat of litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union, said Thursday that the chief public defender continues to have his support.
"I've been pleased with the progress Elliot has made," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "It's an ongoing process."
The Allegheny County public defender's office has come under heavy scrutiny many times in the past.
In 1996, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against the county, alleging it was failing to meet the constitutional right to counsel for indigent defendants. On the eve of trial, the two sides worked out an agreement that called for an increase in the number of attorneys, a better attorney-to-client ratio and an increase in the number of investigators.
The terms of that agreement ended in 2005.
Then, in 2008, a report commissioned by the county solicitor called the office "dysfunctional," listing many of the same problems identified in 1996.
The results of that study, though, were not circulated or acted upon until obtained by the ACLU through a Right to Know request in 2011.
Late that year, ACLU state legal director Witold Walczak put the county on notice that if improvements weren't made in the quality of indigent defense, another lawsuit would not be far off.
Internally, Mr. Walczak said, the ACLU decided it would give Mr. Howsie one year on the job before beginning a thorough review of the current status of the office.
In the meantime, Mr. Fitzgerald said, he has been meeting with a sort of ad hoc advisory committee, including members of the defense bar, Mr. Walczak and leaders within the African-American community to continue working on improvements.
Sala Udin, a former Pittsburgh city councilman who now serves as the interim co-director of the August Wilson Center, is among them.
"I'm concerned that the office of the public defender is under-resourced and is not able to provide indigent defendants with the quality and quantity of representation that the Constitution requires them to have," he said.
Mr. Udin still hears concerns that attorneys are not dedicating enough time to each case and that there is a disproportionate number of plea deals.
Further, Mr. Udin continued, he believes that the office does not have sufficient independence from the judiciary.
"Judges are controlling the way cases are handled," he said, noting he's received complaints from attorneys in the office. "To fully represent a client, they have to be able to act and speak freely. If the judiciary has influence on which PDs appear before their court and whether or not the PD gives a vigorous defense or takes a plea deal to get rid of those cases, that's a problem."
Mr. Howsie, though, said "yes, absolutely," he has the necessary independence from the judiciary.
"No judge has told me this is who I think should be a supervisor, this is who should be in my room," he said. "The people I've put in place are strong supervisors. They're not going to be pressured to do something just because a judge says so.
"Our loyalties are to what is in the best interest of our clients."
Mr. Walczak said he has continued to receive complaints about the lack of early involvement by assistant public defenders when their clients are jailed, as well as a gap between the preliminary hearing and pretrial conference in cases.
"We've seen no improvement in either of those areas," Mr. Walczak said.
Mr. Howsie, though, disagrees.
He said that there are now two attorneys visiting the jail every day and assisting paralegals as they conduct intake interviews with new clients.
As for the delay when a case moves from the magisterial court system to the Court of Common Pleas, Mr. Howsie said he is in the process of developing a new unit in the office that will be responsible for filing bond reductions, pretrial motions and handling those issues that come up before trial.
In addition, Mr. Howsie said he has realigned the office and has moved longtime, more experienced attorneys out of the pretrial unit and brought them back to the courthouse to handle trials.
That means young, inexperienced attorneys are going to pretrial first and not being assigned complex crimes in Common Pleas Court immediately.
"More senior attorneys have been moved to use their experience," he said.
Mr. Walczak was also critical of the number of investigators working in the office.
Mr. Howsie confirmed there are only eight, which is five below the level required by the agreement reached in 1998.
While he wants to hire additional investigators, Mr. Howsie said, "Our focus now is more effectively using the ones that we have."
The office currently has 87 attorneys with three vacancies. Ten attorneys have left in the last year.
Mr. Howsie touts the recent appointment of three new deputy public defenders, as well as the creation of a number of midlevel supervisor spots to help oversee day-to-day operations.
Responding to the ACLU
But critics say that two of the deputies -- one who worked with Mr. Howsie in the same unit in the Allegheny County District Attorneys' office and another who shared an office with him in private practice -- have no management experience.
Mr. Howsie dismissed those criticisms.
"With all due respect, the office was full of supervisors with all kinds of management experience, and that didn't prevent it from turning into what it was," he said. "I'm not convinced one has to have managed to be an effective manager."
Instead, he said, if a person has proved to have a strong work ethic, has a history of mentoring young people and is well-regarded in the legal community, that can be enough.
"That's the group of attorneys that has consistently functioned as supervisors -- the go-to people who have been promoted," Mr. Howsie said.
Those same supervisors are now handpicking cases for the attorneys under them to ensure that their skills match their clients' needs.
As for criticisms about a continued lack of training, the chief defender said those are being addressed.
No county public defender's office in Pennsylvania has a full-time training coordinator outside of Philadelphia's highly regarded office, Mr. Howsie said.
Instead, he continued, the office is taking advantage of court holidays to do in-house training.
For new hires, Mr. Howsie said, attorneys must do a full two-week training program in the pretrial division before they are allowed to meet with their first client.
As those attorneys progress to the trial unit, he said, they must complete another two-week training, which includes lecture, a practicum, learning about jury selection and doing sample closing arguments.
The program is being designed by Stacey Steiner, the new deputy in charge of the trial division.
"We haven't done any yet because we're still hiring," Mr. Howsie said.
In addition, the training coordinator from Philadelphia is coming in early May to do a management training session, he said.
"Everything we're doing is responsive to the ACLU," Mr. Howsie said. "We know the things that have plagued this office for years. We're not saying it's 100 percent, but we're well on the way."
Among other programs still being developed, he said, are performance evaluations for attorneys, practice standards, as well as a standard for case reviews.
Several attorneys, both in the office and who have left in recent months, have said there has been little, if any, improvement. They asked to not be identified for fear of reprisal and based on the office media policy, which requires any inquiry to be directed to Mr. Howsie or county spokewoman Amie Downs.
The staffers complain that things like dress code and media policy have been addressed, but substantive things like meeting with clients and ensuring adequate resources for expert witnesses have not.
But Mr. Howsie attributes those complaints to sour grapes and trouble adapting to change.
"People are reluctant to change," he said. "Now, we're requiring the more senior attorneys to do the heavy lifting. I'm not interested in firing anyone. But I do have an interest in making people so uncomfortable that they leave.
"The question is, am I charged with keeping the attorneys happy or upholding a client's rights?"
As for his feelings about Mr. Howsie, Mr. Udin said he supported his selection by the county executive.
"Elliot is new, and we have to give him time to work," he said. "It's too early to tell. He's organizing his office. I think he has to be given adequate time before he's evaluated or judged."
First Published March 17, 2013 12:00 am