Criminal Justice Section
Criminal Justice Magazine
Volume 17 Issue 1
Terry Brooks and Shubhangi Deoras
New Frontiers in Public Defense
In recent years, public defenders in various parts of the country have expanded their role to include "holistic" or "whole-client" advocacy—advocacy that aims to address the underlying problems in their clients’ lives that may lead to repeat involvement in the criminal justice system—as well as community outreach efforts. This column presents a few examples of community public defender offices that are engaged in this type of work: The Bronx Defenders, the Georgia Justice Project, and the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.
The Bronx Defenders
The Bronx Defenders is a nonprofit organization in New York that has provided criminal defense services to indigent residents of the Bronx since 1997. Through a contract with New York City, The Bronx Defenders serves 12,500 clients per year. The staff includes teams of attorneys, social workers, investigators, and support staff, all of whom work together with clients, their families, and community-based organizations to address the legal and other issues leading to the client’s involvement with the criminal justice system. The Bronx Defenders aims to reduce recidivism by providing the counseling, social services, treatment alternatives, and aftercare that clients need to address underlying problems such as poverty, addiction, mental illness, inadequate education, lack of access to social support services, and severe family conflict.
The Bronx Defenders also offers youth outreach programs that are open to the community. The Justice Fellowships provide opportunities for local high school students to educate their fellow youth regarding their legal rights on the street, in court, and in school. The Community Arts Exchange offers art projects to elementary school students to increase their knowledge about and pride in their neighborhood. The Bronx Defenders Debate Initiative is a resource center for local high school debate teams that compete in debate tournaments at the city, state, and national level.
Georgia Justice Project
The Georgia Justice Project was founded in 1986 and is located in the Auburn Avenue section of Atlanta. Its mission is to take a holistic approach to ensuring justice for criminally accused indigent persons by providing them with legal representation, individual and group counseling, prison visitation, employment opportunities, and job training. Due to limited resources (funding is provided entirely by private donations), the Georgia Justice Project can accept only 10 percent of the requests it receives for assistance. Potential clients must undergo extensive interviews regarding their life history and current goals and must sign a contract that outlines the commitments the client must make, in terms of social service program requirements, in exchange for legal representation.
Additionally, the organization has operated a nonprofit lawn care company called New Horizon Landscaping since 1993 to provide job training and steady employment for citizens who have been served by the Georgia Justice Project.
Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem
The Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem is a nonprofit public law office providing criminal defense representation to inner-city residents in Upper Manhattan in New York. The Neighborhood Defender Service has practiced holistic advocacy since 1990, involving civil and criminal attorneys, social workers, investigators, paralegals, and interns in the defense of its clients in order to help clients avoid future contacts with the criminal justice system. It provides (1) a location within the community it serves in order to foster strong relationships with clients and their families; (2) early intervention in client cases, facilitated by ongoing publicity campaigns that encourage residents to request assistance at the earliest point of contact with the police; (3) team defense, including advocacy for alternatives to incarceration, educational support, psychiatric and psychological referrals, and drug treatment placements; (4) civil representation in areas related to clients’ criminal cases, such as police brutality, housing and eviction matters, and child protective proceedings; and (5) educational programs designed to inform youths and community members about their legal rights and responsibilities.
As these types of programs are a relatively recent phenomenon, their long-term efficacy has yet to be quantitatively studied. Space limitations prevent further examination in this column of the costs and benefits attached to expanding the traditional role of the defender in this manner. (For a more detailed analysis, see Cait Clarke, Problem-Solving Defenders in the Community: Expanding the Conceptual and Institutional Boundaries of Providing Counsel to the Poor, Vol. XIV No. 2, Geo. J. Legal Ethics 401 (Winter 2001).)
Terry Brooks is staff counsel for the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense. Shubhangi Deoras is assistant committee counsel. Both are contributing editors to Criminal Justice magazine.