Teresa Deni: Judge Deni Brings More Than 30 Years of Legal Experience to the Table
Judge Teresa Carr Deni is a Democrat running for District Attorney. She recently retired after serving 21 years on the Philadelphia Municipal Court Bench, but Deni wasn’t always part of the system — she was once an activist. A graduate of Temple University, Deni once opened a feminist bookstore called Alexandria Books at 20th and Walnut Streets in Center City and was active in the gay and feminist rights movements.
“We published a feminist newspaper called Hera,” Deni said.
After Temple, Deni began a legal career spannig over 30 years. She practiced law for 10 years prior to becoming a judge and served as chair of the criminal justice section of the Philadelphia Bar Association. This position allowed her to work with other attorneys and facilitate open discussions between lawyers to become better at performing their jobs. “We put on programs every month in different aspects of criminal justice for the lawyers,” Deni said.
She has also served as counsel for the Democratic City Committee, the Board of Revisions of Taxes and the Office of Housing and Community Development. She’s also served as defense counsel on several death penalty cases.
Deni fought to change the system of how court-appointed attorneys are paid. According to her, the pay was low and the caseload was tremendous. “Even for death penalty cases, the pay is totally inadequate for court-appointed attorneys,” Deni said. “They haven’t come up with a good system making sure that competent people are appointed and paid appropriately.”
According to Deni, the opiate crisis is a major contributing factor to all the crime that occurs in Philadelphia. She has had a change of heart on how to approach this epidemic. “Before this particular crisis, I did not agree with the idea of methadone maintenance,” Deni said. “In a lot of cases, medication therapy for addiction is the most appropriate way for people to function without committing crimes to support their habits. It really [made] a major change in my mind on how these things need to be treated.”
She cites a conversation with a friend after visiting the infamous Mascher Street bridge where addicts hide from sight below the structure to take drugs. She believes addiction alters the brain chemistry to the point where these people are no longer in control of their actions and need drugs like methadone to lead normal lives.
“At least [methadone is] legal and you’re not under a bridge injecting yourself like a troll,” Deni said. “If people physically need medication to transition, then I’ve changed my mind and that needs to be offered.”
Judge Deni believes drugs are fueling the gun violence in Philadelphia. “The basis for most crimes is [either] mental health, drugs, poverty or evil,” Deni said. “The drug craze is the basis for people feeling the need to carry guns.”
One of the biggest reasons she believes people are likely to be involved with illicit drug sales is the fact that in an increasingly saturated field of job applicants, anyone convicted of a felony is less likely to be hired. “If you can’t get a job, if you have no economic hope, you land in these situations,” Deni said. “I’m not excusing this in any way, but we have to try to understand where it’s coming from.”
Deni told Spirit News she does not support mandatory minimum sentencing and is willing to support diversionary programs to take the burden off the court system with regard to minor offenses. “Once you are convicted of a felony, you can’t get a job,” Deni said. “That’s a pretty harsh penalty to pay, and to have half the city ineligible for employment — it’s just a losing battle. We need to build people up, not tear them down.”
This isn’t the first time Deni has thought about running for District Attorney. She believes there is a time and place where every DA’s office needs to be purged. She says she felt this way when Lynn Abraham decided not to seek another term, and she feels the same way today.
“I wanted to run eight years ago when Seth [Williams] was first running,” Deni said. “There’s a culture of every District Attorney and I found that could benefit from a change in culture. That’s still my argument today.”
Deni is only one of two DA candidates who has not served in any District Attorney’s office. She believes this is key to a fresh start. “Anyone else would bring in the culture that they learned under prior District Attorneys,” Deni said. “I think it needs a fresh start completely.”
Deni told Spirit News that she looked at the DA’s office budget and noticed some troubling issues regarding the demographics of the DA’s office employees. “One thing I did take notice of when I looked at the budget was that there were twice as many whites as minorities hired, twice as many men as women,” she said. “The whites were paid more than the minorities and the men were paid more than the women.”
She hopes to diversify the office as a better way to serve diverse communities in Philadelphia. “I want to hire more multilingual people,” Deni said. “People are talking about how they want to hire people from the top law schools. I don’t think we need the top law schools as much as we need diversity in the office.”
She also wants to take proactive steps to reach out to the community and break down language and trust barriers between the DA’s office, the police department and the community. “Part of my DA’s office is going to be involved in the schools. You’ve got to go into the schools and interact so that people are not afraid of law enforcement,” Deni said. “It would be helpful to have multilingual attorneys, and I also like the idea of hiring local. I love homegrown.”