The Public Defender Association (PDA) is a non-profit corporation which advocates for criminal legal system reform and develops alternatives that shift from a punishment paradigm to a system that supports individual and community health. We also provide technical assistance to community partners who are committed to these goals.
Since 1998, PDA has housed the Racial Disparity Project (RDP), working to reduce racial disparity in the criminal legal system. The RDP organized the Drive to Survive Campaign in its formative years, launching driver re-licensing programs throughout Washington State in recognition that people of color disproportionately and in large numbers were losing their licenses due to unpaid traffic fines. Drive to Survive eventually succeeded in repealing Seattle’s impoundment program which seized and often sold cars driven by suspended drivers, under the deceptively appealing logic of “jail the cars, not the people,” and persuaded King County not to pass a similar impoundment law. The RDP also reformed Washington’s pre-trial release rules, worked with community partners to champion police reform, and litigated a high-profile challenge to racial disparity in Seattle drug arrests.
After nine years, that litigation led to a remarkable collaboration with our previous opponents. We launched the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD®) program in 2011, in partnership with the Seattle Police Department, the King County Sheriff, the King County Prosecutor, the Seattle City Attorney, the Seattle Mayor’s Office, the King County Executive, the Seattle City Council, the King County Council, the ACLU-WA, and a wide array of neighborhood and public safety leaders. LEAD® reduces racial disparity in the justice system by providing an alternative outcome for police engagement with people who commit law violations due to unmet behavioral health needs, particularly addiction. PDA serves as Project Manager for the flagship LEAD® program in Seattle/King County.
We house the LEAD National Support Bureau, launched in 2016, which supports jurisdictions around the country that are exploring pre-booking diversion programs modeled on LEAD, encouraging those efforts to adhere to LEAD core principles that make it effective and transformative.
VOCAL-WA, an organizing effort by and for those most affected by the policies we seek to change, is a semi-autonomous membership-based project of PDA.
We house the Civil Survival Project, a project by and for formerly incarcerated leaders who advocate for individuals and for the community of people reentering the community after incarceration; and Collective Justice, a base for people who have experienced serious harm and want to advance alternative models of accountability that rely less on punishment and shame, and more on healing justice and transformative justice principles.
PDA co-coordinates with the Downtown Seattle Association and the Center City Initiative, bringing human services programs and civil rights advocates together with business and neighborhood safety leaders, to advocate for a shared vision of a safe and healthy downtown Seattle that is welcoming to everyone.
PDA and its staff are proud and grateful that our work has been honored by the Mothers For Police Accountability (Paul Robeson Award), the Minority Executive Directors Coalition (Service and Advocacy to Communities of Color Award), Real Change (Change Agent of the Year), El Centro de la Raza (Roberto Maestas Legacy Award) and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation (Creative Leadership Award).
Founded in 1969 as a Model Cities program under the name “The Defender Association,” PDA earned regional and national recognition for its leadership in providing high quality public defense services. From its earliest days, PDA practiced a client-centered approach to indigent defense, and was a pioneer in “community-oriented defense,” continuously identifying and working to address the dynamics with which clients were struggling, both individually and systemically. The Racial Disparity Project emerged from that tradition. In 2013, after litigation establishing that public defenders working for non-profit offices were constructive employees of King County for purposes of pension eligibility, King County created an in-house public defense program. Since that time, PDA has preserved its original mission of policy reform and working with community partners to end inequities in the justice system.
The Public Defender Association advances social and racial equity and community health through reform of the criminal legal system. Grounding reform in a public health and safety framework, PDA develops new strategies and implements models that improve on conventional responses to crime and public order issues. In collaboration with community and government partners, we use policy advocacy, organizing, litigation, and public education to achieve our goals.
Our system reform work has been sustained by the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the RiverStyx Foundation, the Vital Projects Fund, the Massena Foundation, and a variety of occasional grants from individual donors and family foundations. PDA would also like to acknowldge generous support from individual donars. If you would like to donate to PDA, please use our donation site or by making purchases through AmazonSmile which will directly contribute 0.5% of the price on eligible products to our organization.