Essay: Why the mayor’s proposed budget sends the wrong message on public safety

Defender Association of Philadelphia office building

File photo: The building at 1441 Sansom Street is home to the Defender Association of Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It is absolutely no surprise that the gun violence crisis is the number one issue on the minds of Philadelphians. Emotions on this issue run the gamut from anxiety and fear to frustration and anger — and all these feelings are justified.

At this critical moment for Philadelphia, the Mayor and city leaders’ approach to the budget must be guided by the important and nuanced conversations about public safety and justice that were ubiquitous in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020.

The city’s investment strategy to address the dramatic uptick in gun violence must move beyond law enforcement to include justice system stakeholders, such as the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

Every day, the staff at the Defender Association do incredible work representing our clients in court and connecting them to resources that address the root causes of what initially brought them into the criminal justice system.

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Let’s talk about a young client who carries a gun and chooses to use it. Why would he do this? Is it because he has suffered from lifelong poverty and a lack of quality education? Is it because he has a mental illness or suffers from a substance abuse disease? The answer is likely all the above.

Typically, it’s a combination of issues and circumstances that brings clients to our doors. Furthermore, over 80% of our clients surveyed are witnesses to, or victims of, gun violence. This week’s Defender client could be the prosecution’s victim in court tomorrow. Effectively representing our clients, which includes connecting them to resources proven to address their own traumatization and victimization, is critical to stopping the cycle of violence and truly creating public safety.

To Mayor Jim Kenney’s credit, the investments in community-based and citywide violence prevention strategies and programs are significant. A budget is a statement of values, and it is clear the mayor values the safety of our community.  However, his proposals undervalue the crucial work required to create that safety.

While the mayor proposed a $27 million-dollar increase for the Philadelphia Police Department, the Defender Association — who work every day to connect people with treatment and violence-preventative services, valiantly strive to address the drivers of violence, and meet poverty-rooted needs that foster crimes of desperation — got $0.

The Mayor’s proposed budget reflects a troubling imbalance in the approach on public safety. Defender Association lawyers, on average, earn 89 cents for every dollar earned by attorneys in the District Attorney’s Office. When it comes to keeping our offices and our justice system running efficiently, the work of our administrative staff is every bit as important as the work of attorneys.

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Yet while the average administrative worker in a city agency makes an annual salary of around $53,000, Defender Association administrative staff earn around $38,000. Many of our administrative staff, most of whom are Black and brown lifelong Philadelphia residents, must work more than one job to make ends meet. Some have worked at the Defender Association for more than three decades and haven’t saved a penny for retirement, because they only recently started making more than $40,000 a year.

The Defender Association’s mission is to provide free legal counsel to those accused of crimes in Philadelphia, no small task in America’s poorest large city. But we also work to connect our clients to community resources and services they need to keep them out of our justice system. By not increasing funding for public defense, the Mayor’s budget proposal sends the wrong message, not just to our attorneys and staff, but to Philadelphia’s most vulnerable citizens.

Keisha Hudson spent nearly eighteen years as a public defender, first with the Defender Association of Philadelphia and then as a capital appellate defender with the Federal Defender-Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Capital Habeas Unit) representing people on death row in their state post-conviction and federal habeas appeals.

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