CNCounty News

Client model drives Lehigh County, Pa. indigent services

Lehigh County, Pa. Executive Phil Armstrong. Photo by Charlie Ban

Key Takeaways

In a pinch, a flathead screwdriver can get the job done on a Phillips head screw. It might not be as easy, it might be a little more frustrating and take a little more time, but it will get the job done. 

That’s how Lehigh County, Pa. was handling the social service needs of its indigent residents facing court dates. On top of helping them navigate the legal world, public defenders were also taking on the ancillary paperwork to help them out with various human services, getting them registered for assistance and therapy. 

But while the world of the burdens of proof, discovery and exculpatory evidence were second nature to these highly skilled attorneys, the world of red tape, waiting lists and eligibility were not.

“It started with them trying to figure out how to register someone for drug or alcohol treatment,” said Kimberly Makoul, Lehigh County’s chief public defender. “They were dedicated and tried to do their best, but that’s not where their training or background is. We were having to spend some of their attorney time to do that —  it’s something probation officers usually do, but this was all pre-adjudication, so clients hadn’t reached them yet.”

So Makoul went to the proverbial hardware store and found the right tools for the job: Social workers.

“The workload was growing, but rather than hire more lawyers, we could give that work to the people who already understand that area, know what to do and don’t have to spend time getting themselves up to speed,” she said.

County Executive Phil Armstrong liked the budgetary sound of that.

“You can get a social worker cheaper than you can get a lawyer,” he said. “We’re going to wind up with huge savings. It’s going to be a win-win for us and them.”

It follows the holistic client centered representation model, which offers one-stop services. 

“You focus on the needs of the client, and you provide to them rather than sending your client off to this place and that place and this place,” Makoul said. 

“They do some very fundamental things that people might not think about — if someone went to jail in August and they get out in January, if they don’t have a lot of family support, they might be released with the same clothes. But we have a closet of clothes, so they aren’t walking out into the winter wearing shorts.

“We have small quantities of food we can offer them, we give them a soft landing back into the world,” she said. 

“We can help them with little things that most people take for granted — a winter coat, a bus ticket — something that makes sure they aren’t starting again with nothing.” 

Lehigh County is also providing options for indigent clients well after their time in court or jail. 

It’s the first county in the state to fund a full-time “pardon coordinator,” who will work in the public defender’s office. 

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity has helped counties organize volunteers to assist residents applying for pardons, and until Lehigh County hires its coordinator, a private attorney will continue to volunteer in that role.

The county clerk’s office is offering free access to documents, which Makoul said will help lower costs, the prosecutor’s office has pledged its support and the public defender’s office is developing eligibility criteria for pardon assistance services for residents who have been convicted of nonviolent crimes.

“A lot of people don’t even realize pardons are an option for them,” Makoul said. “A lot of people are going through life with a conviction on their record that is affecting their professional and personal outlooks, and this is an opportunity to help them,” while not being reliant on a volunteer’s availability to do the work.

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity reported that the state’s Board of Pardons approves nine out of 10 pardon applications before the governor considers them. Former Gov. Tom Wolfe (D) and Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) have issued more than 2,000 pardons since 2019, the organization reported.

“I’m proud of Lehigh County’s commitment to the pardon project,” Armstrong said. “This is an investment in our residents, and one that’s going to have personal and economic rewards for a lot of people. When you look at the cost of one staff member and the result, that could mean many people being able to do more with their lives after earning a pardon. It’s almost impossible to calculate. 

“We’re talking about shoplifting, people who had a small amount of marijuana, convictions from when they were young that could influence their ability to work lifelong. This could change their lives.”   

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