Westmoreland County struggles with public defender staffing shortage

Jan. 15—Westmoreland County Chief Public Defender Wayne McGrew has served more as an administrator than a courtroom attorney in recent years, supervising a team of lawyers responsible for representing indigent clients in the criminal and juvenile court systems.

But that is expected to change in the coming months as McGrew's staff of attorneys continues to handle an increasing number of cases with a dwindling team of assistant public defenders amid what has been an ongoing struggle to hire staff.

"Our biggest problem is that we have to work very hard to make sure people get good representation," McGrew said. "A big problem is attorney burnout. I used to only do administrative work, now I'm doing casework to help out."

Attorneys in Westmoreland's public defender office handled more than 3,500 cases in 2022.

At full staffing, the office would have a roster of 12 full-time and four part-time lawyers. A series of resignations and retirements over the past year has left just 11 attorneys to handle cases. Five attorney spots remain vacant.

The effort to hire replacements has been daunting, McGrew said.

"We've had positions open for over a year. We're advertising, but I don't even get applications," McGrew said.

Public defender attorney positions are union jobs with salaries tied to a labor deal with one year remaining. The starting salary for public defenders in the county is about $51,000 a year.

Sara Jacobson, executive director of the Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania, said Westmoreland's pay scale is lowest among other similarly sized counties. Westmoreland ranks third lowest in the state for per capita spending on public defenders.

Public defender spending is set by county commissioners. Westmoreland has a $1.4 million budget for those services in 2023, a $200,000 decrease from last year's spending.

A study by the state Legislative Budget and Finance Committee found Philadelphia spent the most in 2019 to represent indigent defendants in the court system, nearly $48 million. Allegheny County spent more than $9.3 million, about $7.68 for each resident.

Westmoreland's per capita spending was $3.76, ahead of only Mifflin and Armstrong counties. Armstrong's per capita spending for public defenders was just $3.50, according to the study.

Jacobson said Pennsylvania is one of two states, along with South Dakota, that provides no funding for local public defender offices.

Burnout among lawyers charged with representing a growing number of low-income residents has left many public defender offices short-staffed, according to Jacobson.

"It's a crisis statewide, and it has to do with a lack of funding from the state," Jacobson said. "The state provides no money for its public defenders."

Higher pay scales in neighboring counties have made it even more difficult to hire in Westmoreland, she said.

"Allegheny County recently renegotiated with its union, and the starting salary there is $65,000. That puts Westmoreland at a competitive disadvantage," Jacobson said.

Allegheny County spokeswoman Amie Downs said 100 attorneys work in the public defender office and there are five vacancies. Office lawyers handled about 14,000 cases last year.

Counties throughout Pennsylvania are struggling to hire public defenders, according to Jacobson.

The public defender office in Luzerne County — like Westmoreland, a third-class county — late last year said staffing issues prompted it to stop providing representation for nonincarcerated low-income defendants charged with misdemeanors. Court-appointed lawyers, paid for out of the public defender budget, are being used to pick up the slack and represent those clients.

In Westmoreland, McGrew said his team of lawyers continues to handle the caseload. And, despite the ongoing hiring issues, he said he will continue to seek applicants to fill out the roster of attorneys.

"We're advertising and doing what we can. No one is applying, but we'll keep trying," McGrew said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich by email at rcholodofsky@triblive.com or via Twitter .