Reinvented Delco Public Defender’s Office wants to lead the way on criminal justice reform

The Delaware County Office of the Public Defender believes that change starts there. It has new leaders pledged to work toward that goal.

Chris Welsh (right), director of Delaware County's public defenders office, gathers with staff in the law library at the Delaware County Courthouse in Media, Pa. Pictured are (from left) Lee Awbrey, Emily Mirsky, Taylor Dunn, Steven Papi, Stephen Deavor, Alyssa Poole, and James Wright. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Chris Welsh (right), director of Delaware County's public defenders office, gathers with staff in the law library at the Delaware County Courthouse in Media, Pa. Pictured are (from left) Lee Awbrey, Emily Mirsky, Taylor Dunn, Steven Papi, Stephen Deavor, Alyssa Poole, and James Wright. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

With criminal justice on the mind of many in Delaware County after a nationwide period of social unrest this summer, local officials wanted to make a change.

“The Public Defender’s Office is incredibly important, and we felt that it was an especially important point to bring in someone who could bring a fresh set of eyes of all that the Public Defender’s Office can become,” said County Council member Kevin Madden.

In July, the council named Chris Welsh new director of that office. Along with a newly installed leadership team, Welsh said he believes that in an adversarial system everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, deserves a fair fight.

And with the latest training practices, a newly hired investigator, and a team of social workers on the way, Delco’s public defenders believe they are refocused and here to change the narrative.

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Described by his colleagues as an Energizer Bunny who leads by example, Welsh, a graduate of St. Joseph’s University and Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, figured out that he wanted to become a lawyer after watching jury trials during an internship with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

“I realized that I wanted to, rather than being on the prosecution side, that I wanted to be on the defense side, standing next to the indigent defendant who was criminally accused. I just always believed that everyone deserved a good lawyer — and that poor people charged with crimes really deserved a good lawyer,” Welsh said.

After graduating from law school in 2005, Welsh worked for nearly 13 years with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, where he eventually became the deputy defender — third in command of about 500 lawyers.

The Defender Association of Philadelphia has been active since 1934, before Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case that held that states are required to provide attorneys to those who are criminally charged and cannot afford one. Welsh attributes his knowledge of the role to his time with the association.

“Working in Philadelphia, [and] being that attorney on the front lines, and being that public defender for a number of years, gave me real knowledge of what it is to do this job,” Welsh said.

In 2018, Walsh left Philly’s defender association to become executive director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at Penn Law. But he missed being a public defender.

“When this position came up, it was just sort of a great opportunity for me to get back into being a public defender,” Welsh said.

After three rounds of interviews, the County Council liked Welsh’s vision for the defender’s office and decided to hire him.

Broadly speaking, that vision involves making sure that the office is not simply “shuffling” people through the criminal justice system.

Chris Welsh, director of Delaware County’s public defenders office, gathers with staff in the law library at the Delaware County Courthouse in Media, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Building a team with a shared mission

Council members were not the only ones impressed. Welsh’s ideas caught the attention of Lee Awbrey — now the new first assistant, second-in-command at the Delaware County Office of the Public Defender.

Awbrey came on board in September, after serving as the chief of appeals in the Montgomery County Office of the Public Defender.

Despite living in Delaware County, she shied away from initially working in the Delco office because it had a reputation as being less than “active” in the broader public defender community.

“It seemed like there was a vacuum,” Awbrey said.

However, after elections brought in new leadership to the County Council and the District Attorney’s Office, and after some shake-ups in Montgomery County’s public defender’s office, Awbrey decided to take a leap.

First Assistant Defender Lee Awbrey at the Delaware County Courthouse in Media, Pa. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I don’t think I ever would have left Montgomery County Office of the Public Defender but for the firings of Dean Beer and Keisha Hudson [for criticizing county bail practices], and at that time, that was kind of what opened the door to my exploring other opportunities,” Awbrey said. “But it was the hiring of Chris Welsh, and the vision that he presented to me when I talked to him, that was the reason why I moved.”

Emily Mirsky is the new chief of appeals; she previously worked with Welsh at the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

“We both kind of had the same ideas about changes and, you know, making things better for the client and communities. So, I just was on board with all of his ideas and thought it would be a really interesting challenge,” Mirsky said.

One new idea that has come to fruition is a training program for lawyers on staff.

“When you have seasoned lawyers come in and train and talk about how to do things the right way, it really makes a difference in the way that lawyers learn to litigate and how to try a case and how to present a case to a judge and to a jury,” Mirsky said

Alyssa Poole is the new chief of the juvenile unit in the public defender’s office, by way of private defense and a stint as a Delco assistant district attorney. Poole said that Welsh’s energy and beliefs have allowed this leadership structure to flourish.

“I know that some of his main priorities right out of the gate was getting a bunch of supervisors in place so that you know we’re able to have better organization and stay on top of everybody in the office,” Poole said.

Not all the leaders are new. There are a couple of veterans, and they say the addition of people with fresh perspectives has allowed the Public Defender’s Office to recalibrate.

“[Outside leadership] actually has been a positive, I think, because it is a fresh set of eyes to kind of look at the way we do things, and sometimes the way that it was done in other counties seems to be a better fit,” said James Wright, the new chief of the adult trial unit.

Prior to Welsh’s arrival, the Public Defender’s Office did not have a concrete leadership structure. Wright, who has been with the office since 1996, said that until about 10 years ago there wasn’t much of an upper-management system.

With de facto roles thrown out the window and an official system now in place, Wright has embraced the shift in gears.

“We’re providing more oversight. We’re providing more, I would say, assistance, for lack of a better word, trying to be more hands on as far as helping each of the attorneys out inside and outside the courtroom,” Wright said.

Under Welsh’s direction, Wright believes that the office has been able to stop what he described as the warehousing of people before trial.

“I think we’re making a significantly greater effort to try to simply just get people out of jail,” Wright said.

Taylor Dunn is the new chief of the pretrial unit; he’s been with the office for 10 years. Dunn said that the benefits of Welsh’s leading from the front approach were apparent on Day One.

“Chris has really refocused us, as an office, kind of on our main mission to help indigent clients who are charged with crimes and put the clients first above everything else,” Dunn said.

The office is even hiring an investigator to help clients with getting evidence for their cases.

“[We hope] to have a full-time investigator on staff to help with finding witnesses, or tracking down surveillance video, or doing investigations on social media — all of the same type of sort of factual investigation that you need to do in order to prepare for trying a case,” Welsh said.

Still, funding for the Public Defender’s Office hasn’t really changed.

“We’ve been able to really invest in elements of that department without an overall increase to the budget,” County Councilman Madden said.

A ‘perfect storm’ for criminal justice reform

Delaware County’s blue wave built gradually, then hit like a tsunami. Southeastern Pennsylvania was watching as control of county government shifted fully to Democratic control after the November 2019 election.

Changes were imminent. Welsh’s predecessor, Douglas Roger, was one of the first dominoes to fall. According to Madden, the parties mutually agreed to part ways in February.

Other changes also contributed to the reimagining of the Public Defender’s Office.

“The new district attorney and the people that this attorney has brought in seem to be more of a reform-minded than past administrations,” Wright, the adult trial unit chief, said.

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With criminal justice reform front and center during the summer protests against racial injustice and police brutality, Awbrey, the first assistant public defender, saw it as a moment.

“There was kind of like this perfect storm brewing of things. Really interesting things were happening in Delaware County, and there was a … huge opportunity to make significant change,” Awbrey said.

The Public Defender’s Office had 46 attorneys on staff and 16 vacancies. There are now 50 attorneys on staff.

Delaware County is home to more than 565,000 residents, and the office represents about 70% of people charged with crimes. According to Welsh, they are still evaluating caseloads to “determine the appropriate number of attorneys that we need to represent our clients.”

Right now, the leadership of the Public Defender’s Office is 100% white. Meanwhile, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates, the Delaware County population is 22.7% Black, 6.3% Asian, and 4.1% Latino.

Awbrey said the racial disparity in the courtroom must be addressed.

“We absolutely, absolutely need more representation in our office and in our courtroom. I mean, if you walk into a courtroom in Media on any given day, a criminal courtroom, you will see a complete disproportionate picture of color, where all or almost all of the people who are in suits or positions of power are likely Caucasian,” Awbrey said. “And many of the people who are there to have their futures decided by others are people of color, and the imperative of having attorneys of color, judges of color, police officers of color, of having people walk into the public courtroom and feel a part of it and not the target of it, is really important, and one way that we do that is having representation.”

A few of the significant changes made thus far have been aimed at addressing mass incarceration and focusing attention on the underlying societal problems that cause many people to get caught up in the courts.

The public defenders believe that they know the remedy to address those issues — social workers. The office plans to hire social workers to help advocate for alternatives to incarceration for clients.

“The reason that social workers are key in a public defender’s office is most of our clients end up in the criminal justice system charged with the crime because they have some underlying social service need,” Welsh said.

Whether it’s a drug or alcohol problem, poverty, or a lack of education, Welsh said, the social workers will aim to help keep people out of the system and address their needs.

“There are just way too many individuals in Delaware County, who are incarcerated, or otherwise being convicted, or in cycles of poverty, who deserve support, and our office is one significant part, certainly in the criminal justice arena, but in the broader arena of being able to leverage whatever access we have to the systems, and look for opportunities to improve outcomes,” Awbrey said.

Delco is home to Pennsylvania’s only private prison, George W. Hill Correctional Facility. In February, the County Council moved to begin steps toward deprivatization. Later in December, the council will name a transition team that will help move the process along.

Big dreams for criminal justice reform

In an adversarial system, true criminal justice reform starts with providing proper balance to the Public Defender’s Office, its attorneys believe.

“Our entire judicial system in the United States is based on this premise that you have two sides, and they bring their best of intellectual and legal tools to make their argument and then you have this neutral, the judge, who makes a decision based on the excellent advocacy of these adverse sides. So, if that’s the judicial system that you’re envisioning, and one side is weak, it tilts the entire system over, and that’s horrible for our clients. But it’s also bad for the law, bad for the judges, and bad for the district attorneys,” Awbrey said.

Because of the low pay and its unique role in the legal system, the role of the public defender often attracts a specific personality type that is not afraid to visualize an office that could lead the way on criminal justice reform.

“If you want to really take a shot at criminal justice reform, I think you have to have a well-staffed, well-funded public defender’s office,” Wright said.

Coming from the perspective of private law, Poole, the new chief of the juvenile unit, believes that the team atmosphere at the Public Defender’s Office is critical to its success.

“In many ways, I think our office has the potential to be even better than a private attorney because, if we pull our collective knowledge together, we really are able to offer our clients something more unique than a private attorney can, because we’re able to bounce ideas off of each other,” Poole said.

The public defenders say they have been making an effort to reach out to the broader communities affected by mass incarceration.

“I really think that we will be that in the next five years, be the hub of criminal justice reform for Delaware County. I think that we have the ability to bring together a lot of nonprofits and community activists and people who are engaged in the community to be kind of the spoke with which the wheels turn around to help the population move in a better direction,” Dunn, chief of the pretrial unit, said.

From cash bail to the racial gap in courtrooms, the public defenders believe that they have identified many of the failures in Delaware County’s criminal justice system and that with the help of like-minded stakeholders, these areas can be reformed.

Awbrey believes that it may sound arrogant, but she said the office has the opportunity to not only join the broader legal community but even be a national gold standard.

“The immediate focus is bringing in model best practices into the courtroom at every level of advocacy, so that we are not just Delaware County’s largest public interest law firm, but that we are one of the best public defender’s offices in the nation,” she said.

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