Philly public defenders, staff to get pay raise

Chief Defender Keisha Hudson gets applause from staff at announcement of wage increases. (Tom MacDonald / WHYY)

Chief Defender Keisha Hudson gets applause from staff at announcement of wage increases. (Tom MacDonald / WHYY)

Philadelphia lawyers who defend those who cannot afford representation are getting a pay raise to make their salaries comparable with prosecutors in the city.

A budget increase of $5.8 million for the Defender Association of Philadelphia will be spread among the office’s attorneys as well as support staff, said Chief Defender Keisha Hudson, who has long fought for better pay.

“I was very vocal in my ‘ask’ that we would use $2 million for our attorney staff and $3.8 million for our non-attorney staff,” Hudson said.

The pay increase will allow some workers to quit their second, third, or even fourth jobs, according to Hudson.

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Legal Clerk Dharuba Cherry is hoping the extra pay means he’ll be able to stop working his second job.

Legal Clerk Dharuba Cherry is hoping to be able to get rid of his second job now that he’ll be making more money. (Tom MacDonald / WHYY)

“The whole time I’ve worked here people have always asked why I continue to stay because I could make more money working in another department,” Cherry said. “I stay here because the Defender Association is so special.”

Hudson compares the starting pay for first-year public defenders, $57,000, to that of first-year prosecutors, $63,000.

Defenders and their staff have dedicated themselves to their jobs, Hudson said. She added those workers shouldn’t work a nine-hour day and then have to go work a sporting event followed by a few hours of sleep, and be back doing the work that could change the lives of people accused of crimes.

With this money, Hudson hopes to “bring in and keep and support in every way the best attorneys and staff at the defender so we can do our critical work.”

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez fought for the increase. She spoke of the need for parity between the men and women defending the indigent and the prosecutors.

“This public justice system does not work without the public defender’s office, and you need to be at every table, and this signifies that people finally get it that we need a fully funded defender’s office as part of the team at the table,” she said.

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson also advocated for the Defender’s office to get the money. He said as a young person, he was caught up in the legal system and had a public defender. He credits that person for helping him straighten out his life and move on to the person he is today.

The raises aren’t available immediately. The members of the Defender’s office voted to unionize with the United Auto Workers and their first contract is currently being negotiated.

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Both sides agree that the money will make it a whole lot easier to come to an agreement.

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