With about as little fanfare as when it began, the Great Philadelphia Public Defender Boycott of 2012 is about to end. The rebellion began in June, when the Defender Association of Philadelphia, an independent nonprofit that holds a contract with the city to defend indigent clients, declared that as of July it would no longer staff three courtrooms in the city’s Criminal Justice Center. That forced the city to hire (more expensive) court-appointed private attorneys as replacements and threw the court, by various accounts, into a state of disruption: Instead of a single public defender being able to oversee cases in a single courtroom, judges and court staff were forced to keep track of perhaps a dozen attorneys scurrying around the building. Accusations followed: Public defenders who contacted City Paper worried that clients weren’t getting the quality of representation they deserved; court-appointed attorneys shot back that the Defender Association had abandoned its post and that the city’s habit of untimely payment for their services put them in a bind, too.
The reason for the boycott was simple. Although you might not have gleaned it from a glowing Daily News article about assistant district attorneys who work night jobs to pad their incomes — which didn’t mention the simultaneous defenders’ boycott over wages, or the fact, as reported by the Inquirer, that public defenders with seven years on the job make around $13,500 less than similarly experienced district attorneys — the Defender Association hasn’t gotten a raise from the city in five years. Its staffing had fallen to unsustainable levels, says First Assistant Defender Charles Cunningham, and its attrition rate — driven, Cunningham says, in part by the promise of no raises for attorneys who stick around — meant things were only getting worse. But, says Cunningham, the city and the Defender Association have reached an agreement: The city will kick in enough funding to restore eight positions and, by the end of October, the defenders will be back in the courtrooms.
It does not appear to be much of a cause for celebration. “The attrition is occurring at a rate that is frankly frightening,” Cunningham says. “There need to be qualified people on both sides of the equation.”