Reaction among African-American community leaders to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s appointment of Elliot Howsie to lead the public defenders office has been largely positive, with most confident that he can change the office for the better.
Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh President and CEO Esther Bush said she’s “very supportive of the choice.”
“I am extremely optimistic. He is a Pittsburgher who understands the community, the system, and the result of the politics that has plagued that office,” she said. “I didn’t know Elliot. But now that I’ve met him, what comes through are his values. I look forward to working with him and I am confident that the people of Allegheny County will be better served by his presence.”
Rashad Byrdsong, founder of the Community Empowerment Association, said he plans to invite Howsie to an upcoming town hall meeting to address community issues, but his appointment is only a first step.
“We can’t depend on one man to make the changes I think we need to address the issues of young men taking plea bargains when they are not guilty of anything,” he said. “We need the equitable delivery of services to the poor. I’ll be reaching out to him, but right now the jury is still out.”
Black Political Empowerment Project founder Tim Stevens is much more optimistic. He said he spoke with Howsie twice before his appointment, presented him a list of issues and said he is confident the new public defender will address them.
“I was very impressed with Elliot and I believe he is committed to doing what needs to be done,” said Stevens. “He says what he means and I think he will do what he says.”
One of the issues Stevens and others highlighted is the disparity between the percentage of Black attorneys in the public defenders office ( about 8 percent) and the percentage of Black clients it serves (about 70 percent).
Howsie told the New Pittsburgh Courier, while he too is concerned with the racial balance of the office, he is more concerned with clients getting the best representation possible.
“Having more minority attorneys will make the staffing look more like the majority of the clientele, but doesn’t do anything to ensure that the job gets done,” he said. “The primary focus must be on the quality of service we provide, across the board, regardless of what race the attorneys may be.”
Howsie said staff turnover, which in itself has been an issue within the office, could provide an opportunity for hiring more African-American lawyers, and that he plans to actively recruit more Black attorneys, but again, providing quality service is his primary goal.
“Simply looking at the numbers of law students who are minority, you see only 5-10 percent of each class that is representative of the African-American community,” said Howsie. “The makeup of the office is most definitely a concern for me. I believe the office needs to be more aggressive in terms of identifying, interviewing, recruiting and hiring minority attorneys. That focus is a secondary issue though. The primary focus of the office must be on the quality of service we provide to clients regardless of the race, gender or any other characteristic of the person providing that representation.
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