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The Delaware County Office of the Public Defender is joining forces with a national nonprofit organization to reinvent client services and provide attorneys with additional support.
Starting in July, five non-attorney advocates from Partners for Justice will be embedded inside the Public Defender’s Office. They will work alongside the office’s attorneys and social workers to increase client access to valuable services that address issues such as poverty and mental health.
During the duration of the two-year program, the goal will be to transform public defense in Delaware County and reduce jail time and recidivism by addressing the underlying social service needs of the community caught in the web of the criminal justice system.
“When you can help build those people up and bring them away from the margins of society, then that just makes our community as a whole stronger,” said Chris Welsh, director of the Public Defender’s Office.
Welsh has been leading the charge for criminal justice reform through the revamped defender’s office since July 2020.
In March 2021, the office helped bring about closure of the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima after sending a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services detailing allegations of child abuse leveled against some staff members.
In November, the County Council approached his office to figure out ways some American Rescue Plan Act funding could be used to address criminal justice reform. That was before Welsh knew about Partners for Justice, though.
He’s pretty active on the public defense sphere within Twitter, and there was one profile that kept popping up on his feed: Emily Galvin-Almanza, the co-founder and co-executive director of Partners for Justice. Welsh saw a mention of the organization and began reading about it.
“And then I thought to myself, we could really use their help here in Delaware County. What they’re trying to do and what we’re trying to do here in reforming our office seem to align with one another pretty well,” Welsh said.
So he did what any person would do at 7 on a November morning: Welsh sent Galvin-Almanza an email expressing interest in the program.
She responded almost instantly, intrigued by the idea. The two later talked it out, and she delivered him a written proposal tailored specifically to Delaware County. Welsh passed it along to the County Council, and in January it was approved.
“Public defenders are not seen necessarily as a mechanism to improve public safety, but our County Council has been pretty progressive in the way that they view the role of our office. And funding this initiative is just another example of how they’re trying to view the criminal justice system and public safety under a new lens that really does help build up everyone in our community,” Welsh said.
Though the client advocates will be selected from a national pool, Partners For Justice aims to choose candidates for Delco “who share identities and lived experiences with the client communities they are serving,” according to the proposal.
On a day-to-day basis, the client advocates will handle and assist with issues such as bail, connecting with mental health services, eviction prevention, and even the loss of employment due to an arrest.
Welsh has high hopes for the program’s success in Delco. He wants to reduce recidivism.
“We’ll be able to use these client advocates to achieve better outcomes for our clients, and better outcomes for our clients are really better outcomes for the Delaware County community,” Welsh said.
Galvin-Almanza got her start as a public defender in Santa Clara County, California. Though she no longer serves in that role, she said that someone in that position never truly leaves the profession.
“I’m defending the public in a different way now,” Galvin-Almanza said.
After spending part of her life working on the push to reform California’s “three strikes” policy, she came east to the Bronx in New York City, where she focused on holistic defense.
“Where instead of a lawyer defending a simple criminal case, you take on responsibility for all of the intersecting and sort of cascading issues that can be impacting your client,” Galvin-Almanza said.
That can range from addressing housing and employment issues to focusing on a client’s substance abuse treatment and medical care access. She took comfort in “defending whole people” rather than just cases.
While practicing with the Bronx Defenders, Galvin-Almanza couldn’t help but wonder why that way of conducting public defense wasn’t being put into place across the country. So with her friend Rebecca Solo, she began having conversations about starting Partners for Justice in 2016.
The program debuted in 2018, with two teams in a pilot. One team began not too far away from Delaware County.
“We embedded those teams in Wilmington, Delaware, and Oakland, California — the two farthest-apart public defenders we could find,” Galvin-Almanza said. “And we wanted to see what would happen when we brought in folks who could expand the public defender’s menu from being criminal defense to being housing stabilization, job readiness, employment applications, educational advocacy, benefits applications, vital document gathering, access to mental health care, access to substance use treatment — like what happens when we blow up that menu so that people can really have a one-stop shop.”
She described the results as “incredible.” Partners for Justice may be a relatively young initiative, but it has already had an impact on its host communities. According to the organization, over the past few years its advocate teams have assisted more than 4,000 people with social service needs.
“We also found that advocates help people really deeply on average. Advocates were not helping clients with one service, but three on average, and some as many as 12 or more services per person,” she said. “About 80% of our service goals we achieve for our clients.”
As a result, the organization estimates that it has shaved more than 67,000 days — or roughly 180 years — of jail time off clients’ sentencing.
Galvin-Almanza said that is one of the most “amazing” aspects of the work: the ability to return to stakeholders in the criminal justice system and explain how a client was helped, opening up a pathway to reduce the use of prison time as a solution for every legal matter.
“We actually reduce incarceration significantly every time we do what’s called mitigation, which is telling the story of your clients’ experiences, challenges, and achievements, in a way that’s designed to motivate the court to give them something better than a jail cell,” she said.
She credited the Wilmington office with allowing the organization to hone its skills. The work was so well received by Delaware officials, she said, that the roles eventually found their way into the budget for the Wilmington Office of Defense Services. The organization is now working to have other offices in Delaware do the same.
Galvin-Almanza hopes that the Partners for Justice model, which it calls collaborative defense, will ultimately be adopted statewide in Delaware.
Since fall 2018, there has been an increase in demand for Partners for Justice not just from public defenders but from local governments as well. When July rolls around, the project will be active in more than 20 locations.
The proposal identifies Delco as finding itself in a “unique moment” with the transition to a deprivatized jail in the offing. It states that Delco has the “potential to become a statewide model for top-of-the-line access to justice.”
Galvin-Almanza called public defenders the most “underutilized public safety resource.”
“We always think of police and prosecutors as being the public safety guys, but they only have one tool, and that tool is a cage, and nobody has ever gotten better because somebody shoved them in a cage. In fact, prosecutors and police are not well situated to have access to the information about what people need in order to overcome challenges, and thrive, and move forward away from the legal system. Public defenders hold that information,” she said.
Galvin-Almanza added that to be in a county that prioritizes a public defender’s office that backs “smart, public safety-oriented restorative solutions” is exciting.
Welsh is hoping to have a real impact even beyond the program’s end date.
“These positions and investing in a robust public defender office that can really spend time with their clients, identifying their clients’ needs, and then working to support their clients in the community, is the best investment for the county to reduce costs that were otherwise borne by the carceral system,” Welsh said.
The office hopes to get valuable data once the program concludes.