Poor and Accused of a Crime? You’re Better off in Philadelphia than Anywhere Else in Pennsylvania.

Here’s why all the money the city spends defending the poor accused of crimes is worth it. And why the rest of the state should follow our lead.

"Justice" engraved on Philadelphia's City Hall

There are those who will see it as a mixed blessing, but there is one thing Philadelphia does better than every other city in Pennsylvania and we should be proud of it:

We provide a half-decent defense to poor people accused of crimes. Really.




Now it’s time for the rest of the state to catch up, not just to its biggest city, but to literally every other state in the union. Pennsylvania, you see, is the only state in the nation that doesn’t help its counties pay for the defense of poor people accused of crimes – not even one penny.

Which means, essentially, that if you’re poor and accused of a crime in this state, you’re screwed. Your lawyer is overworked, underpaid, and he or she is most likely without the resources to really dig into your case.

“For many defendants, this means the attorney’s knowledge of the facts of the case will be supplied entirely by the police report, perhaps supplemented by a hurried conversation with the client on the way to the hearing that will dispose of the case,” a state commission reported in 2011. “Due to the impediments faced by those representing indigent defendants, despite their best efforts, there have been instances where a man or woman who was completely innocent of the offense or who had a perfectly valid defense to the charge nevertheless served jail time.”

Penny wise? Maybe, but almost certainly pound foolish. Bad representation at the trial level leads to a lot of appeals — which costs money that still comes out of taxpayer wallets.

“When cases go through the appellate process, that costs the victims,” Phyllis Subin, director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Justice, said Tuesday. “But it also costs the county and the court system, when we need to be able to do it right the first time around.”

The 2011 report has mostly gathered dust the last three years, a victim of lean budgets and, perhaps, a reluctance by most politicians to ask taxpayers to shell out a few extra bucks to help criminals. But that could be changing: On Tuesday, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Montgomery County Republican, asked his colleagues to establish a $1 million agency — a small down payment, really — that would train public defenders to serve in courts across the state.

It’s a start.

The model for Greenleaf’s proposed changes? The Defender Association of Philadelphia. In the 2011 report referenced above — Greenleaf was on the commission — Philadelphia was recognized for its excellence in providing legal representation to the poor, using a relatively large and well-trained cadre of defense lawyers, even though a whopping 68.7 percent of criminal cases here in 2008 needed the services of a public defender. (The state average: 47.5 percent.)

That same year, Philadelphia spent $24.63 per resident to provide criminal defense services to the poor. In every other large county of more than 200,000 residents, that number averaged out to $5.78.The report recommended letting Philadelphia’s long-established system remain standing apart from any new statewide system.

It’s easy to imagine that some folks will take the wrong lesson from this and suggest that Philadelphia is far too generous with alleged criminals — that our budget and resources should look more like those in York County, where authorities spend $3.77 per resident on defense services.

Those critics will be wrong. A well-functioning and fair criminal justice system requires firm and persistent enforcement and prosecution, yes, but also a principled and vigorous defense of the accused. In most of the state, the second pillar is missing. State officials should try to be a little more like Philadelphia, and fix that situation as soon as possible.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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