Montgomery County has taken important steps in recent years to improve the county’s criminal justice system — expanding community prosecution, adopting innovative approaches to address opioid-related crime, and most recently, developing a suite of reforms designed to improve the county’s pretrial system. However, a significant misstep by county policymakers last week threatens the viability of these reform efforts.
Last week, county commissioners summarily dismissed the county’s chief and deputy chief public defenders, Dean Beer and Keisha Hudson, with no public explanation. In a letter issued to Beer shortly before his dismissal, which I obtained in my research, the county chief operating officer criticized the public defender for, among other things, filing an amicus brief in a significant bail case involving the city of Philadelphia, currently before the state Supreme Court, seeking to bring to light potential racial bias by police officers working in the county, and working to lower phone fees for juveniles incarcerated in county facilities to help them maintain contact with their families. Beer and Hudson were criticized for not being sufficiently collaborative and choosing to “go-it-alone.”
If, as it appears, Beer and Hudson were dismissed even in part for pursuing systemic reforms — a core job function for public defenders — the county has created a threat to the independence of the public defender that should alarm anyone who cares about a fair, well-functioning criminal justice system.
Our criminal system is premised on the notion that truth can be found through an adversarial process. It operates best when this process proceeds as designed — prosecutors representing the public and acting as ministers of justice, defense attorneys zealously defending the rights of the accused, and judges acting as neutral decision-makers who apply the law. When public defenders cannot advocate for clients’ interests for fear of losing their jobs, the system falls out of balance, and in the end, everyone suffers. Indeed, the first principle articulated by the American Bar Association in outlining the requirements for a well-functioning indigent defense system is that “the public defense function, including the selection, funding, and payment of defense counsel, is independent.”
Imagine if a county building inspector was fired for not being sufficiently “collaborative” because they documented and sought to correct safety violations in county buildings. Clearly, if the building inspector couldn’t do their job free from political interference, this would put the public at risk. And nothing the county might do to otherwise improve the appearance or usability of its buildings would correct the fundamental lack of safety created by inadequate inspections.
Our criminal justice system works the same way. In other jurisdictions, public defenders play a critical role in identifying problematic practices that threaten our constitutional freedoms and remedying them through zealous advocacy, including unconstitutional searches that unfairly target minorities, police misconduct, prosecutorial overreach, and the use of flawed evidence to convict innocent suspects. Reasonable people may disagree with the public defender’s stances on issues such as bail reform, but it is imperative that they be allowed to operate independently. And not just politics are at stake — my own research demonstrates that taxpayers can end up bearing millions of dollars in excess costs when public defense systems lack the needed independence.
At minimum, to restore faith in the independence of the public defender, county policymakers should provide a clear basis for last week’s dismissals. If Beer and Hudson were, in fact, dismissed for seeking to address systemic problems affecting many clients, they should be reinstated to show the public the county takes seriously its commitment to a fair and balanced criminal justice system.
More broadly, this episode suggests that Montgomery County may need to move toward a model such as the one that exists in Philadelphia, where the public defender is a separately constituted entity that receives funding from local government through a multi-year contract to insulate it from political interference.
Without an independent public defender as part of its framework, the whole criminal justice system is at risk. If Montgomery County is truly sincere about improving its criminal justice system, it shouldn’t imperil its other laudable reform efforts by compromising the integrity of its public defender.
Paul Heaton is the academic director of the Quattrone Center for Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. He resides in Montgomery County.