Philadelphia Seeks to Overhaul Public Defense System; Defenders Skeptical


Philadelphia wants to overhaul how it provides legal counsel to poor defendants and criminals by asking firms to bid for work now handled individually by hundreds of lawyers, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Officials say a new system could improve the defense that poor people get. The lawyers who now do the work predict it will lead to worse outcomes in court. “This is the 21st century, and we want to standardize a lot of the practices,” said Everett Gillison, the city’s deputy mayor for public safety and a former public defender.

When a conflict prevents the Defender Association of Philadelphia from representing someone, the courts assign the client a lawyer. Such conflicts arise when clients’ legal interests diverge and the association cannot represent all the parties. Gillison said a single provider could make the process more efficient and allow for better coordination. The city’s request for proposals states that, in addition to bidding for legal services, interested firms should also explain how they would provide other needed services, including investigative work, expert consultation, and social and other services. Such work could include mental health and drug and alcohol assessments. The city spends $8 million to $10 million yearly on so-called conflict counsel. Under fee schedules in effect last summer, private lawyers were paid a flat fee of $350 to defend misdemeanor cases and $600 for people facing felony counts.

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