If you’re arrested in Philadelphia and cannot afford a lawyer, there’s a good chance you’ll be represented by a public defender from the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The Defender Association, which provides free legal representation to roughly 70 percent of people arrested in the city, is a far cry from the stereotype of frazzled public defenders rushing through massive caseloads.
Here, public defenders aren’t only focused on trial advocacy and legal strategy; they work side by side with social workers and social service advocates to identify deeper needs of their clients and tap into broader social service and community support to address the root cause of their conviction.
“We build an argument for why a client should get services,” as opposed to incarceration, explains Keisha Hudson, chief defender for the Defender Association. “We’re looking at clients holistically, and saying that we’re going to do what we can to connect them to the services they need. The hope is that we’re doing that, and in the court process the case can be disposed of.”
The Defender Association provides “client centered and community oriented” public defense—akin to what’s known as “holistic” defense, something that is starting to spread to other jurisdictions in the state, including Delaware County. That it is not more common is in part because of a shameful fact about Pennsylvania: It is “consistently ranked at the bottom for indigent defense,” according to the ACLU. Pennsylvania, in fact, is the only state that provides no funding for public defenders, meaning the budget is determined by each of its 67 counties.
While this kind of defense is not a cure-all for increasing public safety, a groundbreaking 2019 study found the practice has considerable potential to reduce incarceration — along with the associated financial and social costs — without compromising safety. To be truly effective, defenders and researchers say, more funding is needed to make holistic defense wider spread, so that reform is distributed more equitably between defense and progressive district attorneys, like Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner.
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