In Celebration of Public Defense Week
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Sidebar Magazine, a publication of the Montgomery Bar Association.
I was recently seated next to a man at a county-wide event. When he asked me what I did I told him I was a public defender. He quickly answered, as many people do, “I hope I don’t ever need your services.” I replied “Everyone needs the public defender, whether you have ever been arrested or not.”
Every day public defenders defend individuals who are arrested and charged with committing a crime. Public Defenders defend the Constitution, ensuring that before someone is deprived of their liberty and in some instances, their life, that the state shows that its case is both factually and legally sound. Our work begins in the courtroom but it does not end there. We not only strive to provide the highest quality representation to our clients but we prioritize a holistic, client centered, and community oriented practice with the ultimate goals of securing the best possible resolutions in our clients’ cases, ameliorating the conditions that led to their involvement in the justice system, and improving the overall outcomes for their lives. We work to end the cycle of incarceration and believe that one person, one public defender, one investigator, one social worker can be the difference in our clients’ lives.
National Public Defender Week marks the landmark decision on March 18, 1963 in Gideon v Wainright. This year, we celebrated with a week-long series of events on March 12th– 17th, honoring our dedicated staff and our community partnerships. On March 12th our office, in partnership with DONAFY and Nikki Johnson-Huston, Esq. announced the kickoff of the DONAFY App in Montgomery County. DONAFY, the APP WITH A HEART, is a free smart phone app that allows anyone using the app to easily locate nearby nonprofit and other service organizations to help people access housing, food, medical care, mental health, job assistance, drug & alcohol treatment, LGBT resources, veteran services, services in Spanish and youth services. This partnership will provide a valuable tool to help those in need to find social services and treatment options in Montgomery County.
On March 14th we had our annual staff breakfast honoring our dedicated staff. We also presented the Inaugural Kate Taxis Defender of the Year award to Carol Sweeney. Carol has been advocating for the interests of Montgomery County citizens for nearly two decades having served in the District Attorney’s Office for seven years and as a public defender for ten. She is the Chief of our Trial Unit, the public defender liaison for the Behavior Health Court and carries a full caseload. It is common to find Carol staying late into the evening working with young lawyers as they prepare for court and sharing with them the tools they need to succeed. Respected by judges and district attorneys alike, and a true friend to all who know her, Carol is selfless in her pursuit of justice and truly embodies the spirit of a servant of the public.
On March 15th, we presented our 2nd Annual Herbert Morris Award to the Norristown ad Pottstown Family Justice Hubs. Herb Morris was a local community leader that helped public defender clients through the Fatherhood Initiative, a program of CADCOM. We give this award to those in the community who either individually or through their organization work to benefit our clients. This year, we are honoring CADCOM’s Norristown and Pottstown Participatory Justice Hubs. In 2015, we partnered with Raj Jayadev and the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project in San Jose, California, who developed the Participatory Defense Model. Montgomery County is among the very first communities in the nation to introduce this community-based, collective action tool. Participatory Defense demands fairness in the justice system, effectiveness of public defenders and accountability from prosecutors, judges, police, and prisons. Through this model, people facing charges, their families, and their communities, are empowered and provided tools to impact the outcome of cases and transform the landscape of power in the courtroom.
We ended this great week with co-sponsoring a Criminal Record Expungement Clinic on Saturday, March 17, 2018, at Arcadia University. For many people a prior conviction or mere arrest that resulted in a dismissal can affect their ability to work, obtain housing or participate in student loan programs. By providing this service we hope to allow people to live a productive and fulfilled life. Having a job is about more than a paycheck, it is about dignity and self-respect. Helping people help themselves is what holistic representation is all about.
There would be no Public Defense Week without the support of many community partners and supporters, including the Montgomery Bar Association and members of the Montgomery County Bar. We will be celebrating Public Defense Week each year, honoring our staff, community and organizational partnerships, and hosting service projects aimed at highlighting systemic issues in our criminal justice system.