Public defenders represent about 70 percent of the criminal defendants in Philadelphia with ongoing cases in the courts, but not every case is a major criminal matter.
“Think about the hundreds of folks going through the CJC – and they’re over there right now,” said Curt Watkins, chief of adult social services at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. “Most of those folks aren’t there for trials. Most of them are there for violations.”
To help clients manage probation and other social issues, the Defender Association is been offering a holistic approach through the Defenders Hub. Watkins started the Hub in October 2016, using repurposed office space inside Philly’s Criminal Justice Center to provide on-site intake for social services.
“Every day the CJC downtown is crowded with hundreds of people dealing with addiction issues,” Watkins said. “Why not have, right inside the court, an office that deals with that?”
He said clients in custody can face wait-times of up to two months or more for drug treatment. Through the Hub, they can get same- or next-day appointments for treatment. And judges seem to have taken advantage of the alternative: in 2017, 504 clients got services at the Hub.
“I’ve never had anybody slam the door and walk out,” said Erica Berson, a social worker who daily staffs the Hub along with intake workers from various drug treatment programs. “I get them treatment very, very quickly. … It’s a safe space. People can cry if they want to, they can say anything they want. They’re not going to be penalized, they’re not going to be locked up, I’m going to listen to them.”
With a rate of some 40 clients a week in 2017, Watkins said he expects the Hub to “grow and grow and grow and grow.”
“The judges want to hear the stories,” he said. “For a long time prison was the only option they had … they wanted alternatives and they’re giving folks these extra opportunities. That’s the critical part.”
Watkins said the Hub is a strong argument for a more widespread, social services-oriented approach to problems like drug addiction that have traditionally been treated as criminal matters.
“Just locking folks up on these violations isn’t helping, beacuse they’re coming back again and again and again,” Watkins said. “Relapses are part of the process, it’s not because they’re thumbing their nose at your authority. It’s literally because they are struggling with something that took years to come about, and we’re only at the beginning of unraveling this.”
The case of rapper Meek Mill made international headlines after he got a 2-to-4 year sentence on probation still pending from a 2009 illegal gun possession arrest, longer than his original 8-month sentence.
He was found in violation for a positive test for Percocet, an arrest for riding a dirt bike (later dismissed) and another arrest for a scuffle with over-aggressive fans in an airport (later dismissed). His attorneys are fighting the sentence.
Clients of the Defender Association of Philadelphia can get support dealing with similar violations and trying to avoid prison at the Defenders Hub, room #407 in the CJC, from 10 am to 1 pm, Monday through Friday.
The Association also offer full social service and treatment intake to anyone in an emergency weekdays, 9 a.m–5 p.m., at their regular offices at 1441 Sansom Street, Watkins said.
By the numbers
clients helped at the Hub in 2017
receive substance abuse-treatment related
are involved in ongoing cases
“Fix Philly” is a Metro column that looks at potential solutions that could help fix some of Philly’s many problems. Send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.