At “A Community Conversation,” hosted by the Black Political Empowerment Project on June 4, members of the community met with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and the newly appointed Public Defender Elliot Howsie. At St. James AME Church, the two officials shared how their administrations were making changes in the Allegheny County Office of the Public Defender and throughout the county.

MAKING WAVES—Elliot Howsie breaks down changes he is making in the public defender’s office. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“We’ve all heard the stories,” Howsie said, referring to the dysfunctional public defender’s office. “In some incidents people have pled guilty to things they didn’t do. Their attorney was unprepared. We all know someone who’s been through this.”

The public defender’s office is responsible for providing competent and effective legal counsel to any person who lacks sufficient funds to obtain legal counsel in any proceeding where representation is constitutionally required. However, the public defender’s office has long been plagued by reports of mismanagement and misconduct.

“Eighty percent of the attorneys there want to do it the right way,” Howsie said. “There’s a small portion of attorneys who don’t want to change obviously because they’re getting away with murder.”

One of Howsie’s first changes has been to move younger attorneys, who he says are more eager to learn, to preliminary court and “phoenix court” where the consequences aren’t as severe. In this way, young attorneys are handling misdemeanors, while more seasoned attorneys are handling felony convictions.

“By doing it this way, we have a built in mentoring and training process,” Howsie said. “These were the little things we were able to do that didn’t include any additional money.”

In order to reduce incidents of misconduct and mismanagement, Howsie said he would like to hire more supervisors to oversee the attorneys, but this would require more funding.

“If you have 34 attorneys and only one supervisor, there’s no way to keep people accountable,” Howsie said.

Another one of Howsie’s priorities will be to implement a program to help juveniles get their records expunged. Members of the audience suggested he should also work on developing resources for clients, such as a list of what the consequences are for pleading guilty and an explanation of the services provided by the public defender’s office.

While Fitzgerald commended the work Howsie is already doing to clean up the public defender’s office, he also shared some of the changes his administration is making. Among his comments was the announcement that the county will be using the “Rooney Rule,” in county hiring. The “Rooney Rule,” which was developed by former Pittsburgh Steelers Owner Dan Rooney, requires any football team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one minority candidate.

In line with B-PEP’s agenda for the meeting, Fitzgerald also discussed the recently passed voter identification legislation requiring Pennsylvania residents to show photo ID when voting. B-PEP is involved in several initiatives surrounding the legislation, including a civil rights challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union and volunteer efforts to help citizens acquire photo IDs.

“It really is going to disenfranchise people who go to vote every single year. That person who knows you, lives in your neighborhood, and is the judge of elections, isn’t going to be able to let you vote if you don’t have ID,” Fitzgerald said. “We know how difficult it can be to find your birth certificate and there may be people who were never issued a birth certificate.”

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