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Visual Advocacy for Advocates: How Philadelphia’s Defender Association Used Social Media to Increase Funding for Its Workers

July 27, 2022

The staff members of the Defender Association at every level are essential to the fair and efficient operation of Philadelphia’s criminal justice system and deserve pay parity with other City workers. But how do they show that?

By Stephanie Haenn, Penn Carey Law School J.D. 2022

It’s a Sunday morning, and Philadelphia’s center city streets are coming to life with coffee runs and dog walks. At the corner of 15th and Sansom, there stands an unassuming office building with a gray-green façade. Given the day and time, passersby would guess the building was empty. Next to the double doors and well below eye level, a modest black plaque with muted gold letters announces the building’s lone occupant: Defender Association of Philadelphia.

Unlike the stereotypical office building on a spring Sunday, the Defender headquarters is alive with the harmony of arrhythmic clicks on computer keyboards, punctuated by phone calls held to empathetic ears and papers shuffled into files being prepped for scheduled court appearances in the coming week. Inside, it is not a usual Sunday morning. Albeit quieter than on a weekday, the Defender Association of Philadelphia is whirring with public defenders tirelessly working toward justice for their clients—whatever that may look like.

Surprisingly only in the current fiscal year will the attorneys and staff of the Association begin to receive pay commensurate with that of comparable employees at other city agencies. Pay parity comes only after years-long advocacy on behalf of the Defender workforce, spearheaded most recently by Chief Defender Keisha Hudson. The Defender Association is an essential cog in Philadelphia’s criminal justice system, and Mayor Jim Kenny’s budget proposal for 2022-2023 failed to recognize that. As a result, Hudson and the Defender staff undertook an amalgamation of advocacy efforts to support a salary increase for the Defender Association employees. A noteworthy feature of the action involved visual legal advocacy.

On Thursday, March 31, 2022, Mayor Kenney presented his initial proposed $5.6 billion budget to City Council for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022. The budget represented a 5.5% increase—with the additional funds allocated to various city agencies. Notably, the budget included a 3% increase for the Police Department, with “[m]ore than $3 million to enhance the Police Department’s ability to solve violent crime and modernize police tools … .” City Council, concerned about officer recruitment, was also considering “a bill that would provide police recruits a $10,000 signing bonus.” Additionally, under Mayor Kenney’s proposal, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, the third largest in the nation, was to receive an increase of more than $600,000.

The largest incongruity in Mayor Kenney’s budget was the lack of increased funding for the Defender Association. In the City’s Strategic Five Year Plan, the Defender Association budget is relegated to a footnote for a pie chart where the office is shoehorned into a wedge in the chart titled “Other Criminal Justice.” While the Defender Association is a non-profit corporation, it operates under a contract with Philadelphia. The City funds it.

To make a case for a budget increase, Hudson, the attorneys, and non-lawyer employees at the Defender Association fought for themselves. In late March, Hudson issued a press release in response to the proposed budget, expressing disappointment in the City’s failure to recognize the Defender Association’s financial needs. Hudson, in part, said:     “The economic injustice for our staff is compounded by the impact on our justice system. A Defender office that can’t adequately keep pace with the increasing court cases will bog down our courts. It leads to more people languishing in jail waiting for their trials, which contributes to the existing social and economic crises for their families and communities. These conditions only contribute to the violence and public safety crisis that Philadelphia is currently experiencing.”

The Defender Association did not stop with a mere press release. Instead, the Defender Association launched a social media campaign to illustrate the role of the City’s public defenders in achieving justice for not only their clients but also the City. The campaign involved a social media day of action on April 12, when the Defender Association’s lawyers, paralegals, and administrative staff filled their feeds with images captioned with the hashtags “TheDefenseNeverRests” and “FundPhillyDefenders.”

The most publicly viewed posts were from the Defender Association of Philadelphia’s official Instagram account and Chief Defender Keisha Hudson’s personal Instagram account. The posts garnered around 50 to 100 likes. One post on the social media platform bearing the #FUNDPHILLYDEFENDERS, for example, featured a defender holding a printed sheet boasting “The Defense Never Rests” in high-contrast bold block letters, while her arms rested on four tall stacks of green and yellow files, the colors indicating whether the clients’ charges were misdemeanors or felonies. The twenty-file-high piles may not convey much to most viewers. But for those aware that each file pertains to a person whose liberty is at stake, the piles take on greater gravity.

Social media advocacy has flourished in the wake of George Floyd’s death and our nation’s reckoning with endemic criminal justice pitfalls. Usually, however, the increase in social media advocacy centers on bail funds, police reform, and racial equity. Advocacy for public defenders is hardly widespread on social media platforms.

The most prominent social media campaign for public defenders arguably occurred in 2016. The National Association for Public Defenders and other organizations commemorated the 53rd Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court case securing counsel for indigent defendants, with social media posts tagged “PublicDefenseDay.” It was the first time that the anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright was synonymous with a day to celebrate our country’s public defenders. On March 18, 2022, the Defender Association of Philadelphia celebrated in the office.

Social media campaigns are effective mechanisms to sway public opinion. According to a Pew Research Center study, 23% of social media users indicate that social media changed their views on a particular issue. However, whether social media campaigns yield substantive changes is a different question. Here, the Defender Association of Philadelphia needed to persuade the mayor and city council, not just general Philadelphians, to increase funding for its office.

Through concerted efforts on Twitter, Instagram, and traditional media outlets, the Defender Association’s campaign was intense, if not visually compelling. For example, captions featured statistics like the pay gap between public defenders and prosecutors: Philadelphia public defenders make only 89 cents to each dollar attorneys in the District Attorney’s office make. Further, administrative staff at the Defender Association make almost $15,000 less per year than the average Philadelphia government administrative worker. These numbers illustrate the City of Philadelphia’s failure to balance resources in the adversarial criminal justice system. The root of the #TheDefenseNeverRests campaign was to highlight that underfunding Philadelphia public defenders debilitates the entire system’s proper functioning. The percentage of indigent criminal defendants bolsters the conclusion. A report from the Department of Justice in 2000 showed that 80% of criminal defendants were impoverished. Thus, 80% of those facing criminal prosecution rely on public defenders.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that the visual social media campaign was just one of many efforts the Philadelphia Defender Association pursued. In addition, those fighting for pay parity used written and oral advocacy. Even in those mediums, however, the Defender Association advocates used vivid verbal imagery to illustrate the injustice in Mayor Kenney’s proposed budget. In addition, they marshaled narratives about the commitment and dedication of the staff around which supporters could rally and empathize. For example, Hudson described the Defender Association’s employees’ workdays as follows: “Defenders and their staff have dedicated themselves to their jobs … Those workers shouldn’t work a nine-hour day and then go work a sporting event followed by a few hours of sleep and be back doing the work that could change the lives of people accused of crimes.” Hudson’s visually evocative language afforded constituents the ability not only to relate to “those workers,” but also to understand how the Defender Association employees are “essential workers” of a different kind.

On July 6, 2022, the City finalized its budget. It included an increase of $5.8 million for the Defender Association to “be spread among the office’s attorneys as well as support staff,” according to Hudson. The Defenders’ advocacy campaign persuaded the City that any semblance of a well-functioning criminal justice system required the City to stop underfunding such an essential agency as the Defender Association.

There are limits to the efficacy of social media as a tool for educating citizens about the need for funding increases for the public defense of indigent persons. If informed of the need for balanced resources in an adversarial system, many Philadelphians would undoubtedly agree that public defenders deserve as much funding as agencies with directly competing interests. However, to best inform the mayor’s constituencies through social media engagement requires pandering to an omnipotent system: social media algorithms. Social media algorithms deliver users more content that aligns with the content for which they have already indicated a preference. Reaching the users who will care about funding public defenders requires using similar imaging and captioning from other criminal justice reform pages. Then, content advocating for public defense funding will reach users already engaged in the criminal justice forum. Unfortunately, social media algorithms are revenue-generating engines, delivering only the content that will maximize a platform’s profits. It is easy for content to get lost on a platform like Instagram, where product-pushing influencers flood users’ feeds. It is vital for social activism on social media to, therefore, similarly curate content.

At the same time, social media can be an effective medium for advocacy for public defenders across jurisdictions. Beyond one-off local movements, public defender offices across the country should engage in concerted efforts like the one spearheaded by the National Association of Public Defenders that spawned Gideon Day. While, in theory, democracy requires individuals with voting power to enact change, too often, community change requires finger-pointing from outsiders. If the nation communally reckons with the reality that public defenders in Philadelphia make only 89% of what their counterparts in the District Attorney’s office make, perhaps similarly situated public defenders in other jurisdictions will slowly see the resources they need to advocate on behalf of their clients effectively. Because social media has the capacity to capture the country’s attention, it could prove useful in the pursuit of a balanced criminal justice system. It is also significant to recognize that, even today, visual legal advocacy can exist in media other than social networking platforms. For example, advocates interested in pushing for national public defender pay parity might find the 2013 documentary Gideon’s Army instructive. Gideon’s Army followed three fledgling attorneys who commenced and devoted their careers to public defense. It emphasized the centrality of public defenders to the broader criminal justice system in a way that was invisible or largely unrecognized.

The Defender Association will finally see pay parity because of myriad converging efforts. It is essential to discern and acknowledge the role visual legal advocacy played so that similar methods, and perhaps more ambitious methods akin to Gideon Day and Gideon’s Army, can be deployed beyond Philadelphia to increase salaries nationally for public defenders and their support staffs.