This story was originally published on Billy Penn and is reprinted here with permission.
Children caught in the court system and people reentering society after incarceration in Philadelphia will soon have additional help getting the resources they need.
Partners for Justice, a national organization focused on changing the public defense landscape, is expanding to Philly, hiring three full-time advocates in the city to help make connections and cut through red tape.
“Someone recently described our work as ‘court doulas,’” Emily Galvin-Almanza, PFJ cofounder and co-executive director, told Billy Penn. “I sort of think of us as bureaucracy doulas.”
In the works for several years, the project is a partnership with the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Ideally, said Chief Defender Keisha Hudson, it will demonstrate that added support for people who rely on public defenders can help them avoid the challenges of reentry.
Homelessness is chief among them. “We have a housing crisis in Philadelphia,” Hudson said, and it’s exacerbated for people getting out of prison.
About 10% of all social services referrals the Defender Association makes for people who aren’t heading to recovery or rehab include a housing component, she estimated — nearly 100 people each year. One of the biggest challenges they face is that incarcerated people are legally considered housed, so when they’re released, they don’t qualify as “chronically homeless” and can’t access many transitional housing programs.
There are social workers within the Department of Prisons, but their average caseload is in the triple digits, according to Kurtis August, the director of the Office of Criminal Justice, which severely limits the specificity of the assistance they can provide.
“If you’re meeting with somebody briefly and assessing what their situation is,” August said, “there are a non-insignificant number of people whose discharge plans are to the city shelter system.”
That’s where Partners for Justice comes in.
The organization, which also recently began working with Delaware County, employs “advocates” — typically recent college graduates — to meet with public defender clients and address their case with more care.
Two will be working with the Defender Association’s Probation, Parole & Alternative Sentencing Unit, and another will work with the Children & Youth Justice Unit. Training is underway, and the partnership will formally begin in September.
PFJ was in conversation with the Defenders before the pandemic, according to Hudson, but funds to collaborate didn’t materialize until this year, when they were included in the city’s FY2024 budget.
Making holistic defense the status quo
PFJ founder Galvin-Almanza began working as a public defender in California before moving to the Bronx to work at a holistic defense agency, a network that emphasized the practical aid her org now offers.
“I loved being able to say yes when my clients would raise issues to me that really mattered to them, but were outside the bounds of a criminal lawyer’s expertise,” Galvin-Almanza said.
In 2018 she and Rebecca Solow launched Partners for Justice “to craft a system for public defender expansion and resourcing that would be highly adaptable, that’s not one-size-fits-all.”
The organization is already active in other major cities, like Oakland, Houston, and Los Angeles. The PFJ team in Delco — which started its work in early 2022 — won plaudits from the Public Defenders Association of Pennsylvania.
“On a daily basis,” said Alyssa Biederman, an investigator with the Delco Defenders, PFJ advocates “are able to provide clients with services that our office simply would not have been able to provide previously.”
These services could make a big difference in Philadelphia, which has many residents under post-release supervision.
As of April, there were 22,709 people on probation or parole in Philly. In all of last year, public defenders filed 283 petitions for early termination of the court-ordered supervision. The Defender Association hopes the PFJ partnership will help clients find firm footing upon release, and increase that number of petitions.
Then there’s the PFJ advocate who’ll work with children in Philly’s court system, where solutions could have a long-reaching effect: Roughly 1 in 5 adult adult clients have been through the child welfare system, per Chief Defender Hudson.
The office’s Child Advocacy Unit already incorporates social workers, but “we just do not have the capacity to be able to assign a social worker to every single child we represent,” Hudson said.
In 2022, the Children & Youth Justice Unit represented children in 2,049 cases. The Alternative Sentencing Unit represented 12,018 clients at probation violation hearings last year. How many clients the three PFJ advocates will be able to serve remains to be seen, and the initial aim is to demonstrate the qualitative difference their work makes, not its quantitative span.
“On a very small level, we want the advocates to be able to show what we think,” Hudson said. “That when you have that interdisciplinary approach — that holistic team approach — the outcomes are much better.”
Hudson foresees asking for continued budget allocations to fund more PFJ advocates, until such defense becomes the norm.
“It’s going to be work that I think is going to allow this organization to be able to add increased resources,” Hudson said, “to really expand this model for all clients.”
Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He also has a background in audio engineering and music production.