Holistic Defense: A New Model of Legal Advocacy

By Felicia Dusha, Editor-in-Chief

Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

While it is generally understood that criminal convictions can lead to traditional forms of punishment such as incarceration, monetary fines, and supervision following or in lieu of incarceration, what is less known is that criminal convictions, or mere criminal charges, can carry disastrous collateral consequences that impact those criminally charged, their families, and the community.[1]

For many, the collateral consequences of criminal legal system involvement can be dire, far-reaching, and long-lasting. For indigent individuals, these repercussions are especially severe. Criminal charges alone may cause loss of employment, housing, custody of one’s children, and immigration status.[2] In fact, U.S. researchers have identified more than 40,000 distinct collateral consequences that impose often permanent barriers to employment, housing, government benefits, professional licenses, and more.[3]

In the 1990’s, holistic defense emerged as a model of legal advocacy that involves a broader approach to public defense.[4] Under the holistic model, not only is a person’s immediate criminal case addressed, but also their underlying needs.[5] The Bronx Defenders, a public defense organization in the Bronx, New York, pioneered the holistic defense model, which involves public defenders, social workers, and other advocates working collaboratively to support indigent clients navigating the criminal legal system.[6]

The goal of holistic representation is to not only eliminate, or at least lessen, the collateral consequences of criminal legal system involvement, it is also aimed at understanding and addressing the underlying reasons why crime occurs in the first place so that we may prevent future criminal involvement.[7] The Bronx Defenders have had the opportunity to hone their model with The Center for Holistic Defense, which is an arm of The Bronx Defenders, that acts as a think tank training center for holistic defenders.[8] In developing the holistic defense model, The Bronx Defenders have identified four pillars from which to base holistic defense:

(1)       Seamless access to legal and nonlegal services that meet client needs,

(2)       Dynamic, interdisciplinary communication,

(3)       Advocates with an interdisciplinary skill set, and

(4)       A robust understanding of, and connection to, the community served.[9]

For example, it is critical to clients that services are seamless since clients are often faced with navigating from one agency to the next, such as the welfare office or the child welfare system, encountering confusing administrative bureaucracy at every turn as well as a lack of connection between these services.[10] However, under the holistic model, civil attorneys and social workers work in a partnership, often in-house, with criminal attorneys to provide seamless access to services.[11]

Likewise, it is vital that a holistic defense client is represented by an interdisciplinary team that has a culture of frequent, meaningful communication both among each other and with                      the client.[12] As of 2013, The Bronx Defenders had six teams of about twenty advocates each.[13] These teams included criminal attorneys, social workers, investigators, civil attorneys (specializing in immigration, housing, employment, criminal records, and public benefits), civil legal advocates, family defense attorneys, and parent advocates.[14] These team members are part of a collaborative model in which all the advocates regularly conduct team meetings and are in communication with each other to address client needs.[15]

The Bronx Defenders also asserts that newly hired criminal attorneys should receive basic training in family, housing, employment, and immigration law as well as educated on the complexities of school, welfare, health care bureaucracies, addiction, and mental health.[16] Interdisciplinary training is important because it allows a defender to fully understand their client’s experiences and how issues interrelate.[17] For example, lawyers may learn how to identify mental illness, and the interplay with a person’s legal case, while social workers may learn to screen clients for potential immigration issues.[18]

Lastly, holistic defense entails cultivating a robust understanding of, and connection to, the community served.[19] According to The Bronx Defenders, a lawyer who has a meaningful understanding of the community they serve is more equipped to advocate for a client, since the lawyer can argue for individually tailored case dispositions.[20] The concept underlying this is that an advocate who can speak from experience about the client’s neighborhood or school will be a more persuasive and effective advocate.[21]

Various studies have identified a multitude of benefits that result from holistic defense. These benefits range from improving the lives of individuals involved in the criminal legal system and their families to a much broader level where the individual’s community and society benefits from the holistic treatment of those criminally charged. [22] The most rigorous study to date evaluating the impact of holistic defense focused on Bronx, New York.[23] The study compared case outcomes for indigent clients represented by a firm employing the holistic defense model compared to clients represented by a firm that did not.[24] The study revealed that the holistic model produces dramatically improved outcomes.[25]

Researchers found that The Bronx Defenders’ holistic defense model reduced the number of clients serving custodial sentences by 16% and the length of custodial stays by 24% or 9.5 days without increasing recidivism or compromising public safety.[26] In total, holistic defense helped clients avoid 1.1 million days of incarceration.[27] Holistic representation also increases the likelihood that clients are granted release on recognizance by 3.2% and reduces overall rates of pretrial detention by 8.6%.[28] For those of whom bail is required, holistic defense is associated with lower bail amounts.[29] Furthermore, because of holistic defense, municipal and state authorities saved an estimated $160 million in inmate housing costs alone during the ten-year study period.[30] This information establishes that the holistic defense model is achieving better outcomes for clients while saving the public money through reductions in corrections spending and lower recidivism rates.[31]

In fact, researchers suggest that holistic defense improves public safety.[32] Because holistic defense addresses clients’ extra-legal needs and increases access to wrap around services (such as addiction and mental health treatment or housing and job training assistance), clients and their families are afforded the opportunity of stability.[33] A greater level of stability is likely to lead to a reduction in crime, as many criminal offenses stem from addiction, mental health issues, and poverty.[34] Research has shown that 85% of the prison population has an active substance use disorder or are incarcerated for a crime involving drugs or drug use and 44% of incarcerated persons report having a mental health disorder.[35] According to researchers, addressing these underlying issues will resolve the reason why crime is committed in the first place.[36]

Each year, roughly 600,000 individuals leave prison hoping that their punishment has ended.[37] However, in many cases, it has not. Every day, people leave prison and “encounter a combination of laws, rules, and biases forming barriers that block them from jobs, housing, and fundamental participation in our political, economic, and cultural life.”[38] This is equally true for those who have merely been charged with a crime.[39] As research has shown, holistic defense can transform lives and communities through a comprehensive approach to legal advocacy.

[1] Robin Steinberg, Heeding Gideon’s Call in the Twenty-First Century: Holistic Defense and the New Public Defense Paradigm, 70 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 966 (2013).

[2] Id.

[3] Appendix to Holistic Defense, Allegheny Lawyers Initiative for Justice,  https://static1.squarespace.com/static/61251e573ab7f8559009a80f/t/6594751311bc047e1a16ec38/1704228118087/10.9.23+1-pager+-+appendix+with+evidence.pdf (last visited January 2024); Citing National inventory of collateral consequences of conviction, The Council of State Governments Justice Center, https://niccc.nationalreentryresourcecenter.org/ (last visited January 2024).

[4] The Bronx Defenders, https://www.bronxdefenders.org/ (last visited January 2024).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Heeding Gideon’s Call in the Twenty-First Century, 986 (2013).

[8] Id. at 987.

[9] Id. at 987-1002. 

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] James M. Anderson, Maya Buenaventura and Paul Heaton, The effects of holistic defense on criminal justice outcomes, Vol. 132, No. 3(Harvard Law Review January 2019).

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Appendix to Holistic Defense, Allegheny Lawyers Initiative for Justice,  https://static1.squarespace.com/static/61251e573ab7f8559009a80f/t/6594751311bc047e1a16ec38/1704228118087/10.9.23+1-pager+-+appendix+with+evidence.pdf (last visited January 2024) citing Impact of social work practice in public defense (Journal of Social Service Research 2018).

[33] Id.

[34] Bureau of Justice Statistics special report: Indicators of mental health problems reported by prisoners and jail inmates, 2011-2012 (June 2017).

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Cameron Kimble and Ames Grawert, Collateral Consequences and the Enduring Nature of Punishment, Brennan Center for Justice, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/collateral-consequences-and-enduring-nature-punishment (last visited January 2024).

[38] Id.

[39] Heeding Gideon’s Call in the Twenty-First Century, 986 (2013).

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