Association seeks to close pay gaps for public defenders

Everett A. Gillison: City is sympathetic but low on cash.
Everett A. Gillison: City is sympathetic but low on cash.
Posted: June 25, 2012

An experienced assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, one with seven years on the job, can make $65,000 yearly.

A public defender with exactly the same experience makes a lot less: $51,500.

To close these sorts of gaps and to fill two dozen vacancies, the Defender Association is playing hardball with the Nutter administration, which funds the office.

Unless the city gives the association more money, it says, as of July, it will no longer staff three of Philadelphia's 67 criminal courtrooms and cut back staffing in a fourth courtroom.

The threat has already forced court administrators to scramble to line up outside private lawyers as potential counsel for the estimated 655 defendants who flow through those four courtrooms every week. The cost to taxpayers could be big, as much as $229,000 every week - 20 times the expense of staffing the rooms with salaried public defenders.

Everett A. Gillison, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, is negotiating with the association to head off the withdrawal. He said that the administration supported increasing public defenders's pay but that the city was strapped for money, facing "the worst economic climate that any administration has had to deal with."

The Defenders Association represents 70 percent of all criminal defendants each year. In a May 21 letter to Nutter, the association said it needed to hire 22 new lawyers, bringing its attorney roster up to 250, to provide adequate representation.

It also said it needed more money to "implement a plan for achieving salary parity" with the District Attorney's Office and the city Law Department, which handles civil cases, and to plug a big hole in its health insurance fund.

The association said it needed to boost its current $36 million budget by about $4 million for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The association said it would withdraw from Courtroom 706 in the Criminal Justice Center, which handles cases from Southwest Philadelphia, and from Courtrooms 405 and 906, which handle domestic-violence cases. It would partly withdraw its lawyers from Courtroom 903, the venue for cases from Center City.

In documents provided to The Inquirer by court officials, Ellen T. Greenlee, the chief defender, and David Rudovsky, the president of the association's board, said the "lack of parity at all levels" had "become intolerable."

According to Greenlee, the starting salary for prosecutors, defenders, and new hires at the Law Department was about $49,000 for all. As lawyers and support staffs stay on the job, though, pay in the Defender Association lags sharply behind the other agencies, she said.

At one time, some assistant district attorneys received pay increases of $10,000 after only three years on the job, she said.

But a public defender with nine years of experience is paid only $53,500, the association said.

Since the association is a nonprofit organization and not a city agency, defenders are not bound by the requirement that they live in Philadelphia.

In a letter to Nutter, Greenlee and Rudovsky wrote that Gillison, who was a top lawyer with the Defender Association for three decades before joining the mayor's staff, had pledged to prepare a parity pay plan for defenders for this fiscal year. In an interview Friday, Gillison said he had made no absolute promise, but had always cautioned that any pay increases would depend on the state of city's finances.

While negotiations continue, court administrators have been struggling to strike tentative agreements with private lawyers who would step in to represent the indigent clients in affected courtrooms. Under city fee schedules, such lawyers are paid a flat fee of $350 to defend someone charged with misdemeanors and $600 for those facing felony counts.

Until recently, the court system had to pay for court-appointed lawyers out of its own budget. That ended this spring.

In April, however, Common Pleas Court Judge John W. Herron, the system's new top administrative judge, issued an order requiring court-appointed lawyers to be paid directly by the city.


Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

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