The Crime Report: Can the ‘Holistic Approach’ Solve The Crisis in Public Defense?

The Bronx Defenders’ method of Holistic Defense is explained in the article “Can the ‘Holistic Approach’ Solve The Crisis in Public Defense?” on

Can the ‘Holistic Approach’ Solve The Crisis in Public Defense? 

“Making changes in a resource-strained small county [Washoe County, Nevada] of 400,000 people seemed , however, all but impossible—until Bosler heard about the Bronx Defenders, a non-profit launched in 1997 that deploys an interdisciplinary team of criminal, civil and family defense lawyers, social workers, parent advocates, investigators, and community organizers created to serve clients and their families in one of New York City’s most troubled communities.

The method has been called “holistic defense” and it breaks down into four pillars, according to Alex Sierck, the director of the Holistic Defense Project at Bronx Defenders and a public defender for over 13 years.

A “systematic” articulation of holistic defense includes “access to legal and non-legal services for clients, advocates with interdisciplinary skill sets and communication, with an understanding and connection to the community,” explains Sierck.

Here’s how it works. When a client come to the Bronx Defenders, the initial consultation could reveal that he/she has “collateral issues.” For example, if the crime the defendant is charged with can affect their immigration status, Sierck explained, The Bronx Defenders can assign an in- house immigration lawyer to work with the designated attorney on how to structure the plea so it won’t effect their citizenship status. Additionally, social workers on staff can help defendants with housing or licensing issues.

And this strategy has worked. The average acquittal rate for jury trials in the Bronx is 57.4 percent, but The Bronx Defenders’ trial win rate from July 2003 to June 2005 was 86.7 percent, according to an evaluation completed in 2006. Clients, if convicted, are 3.4 times more likely to be sentenced to a conditional discharge than indigent defense clients overall in the Bronx; and at the time of intake, a client of The Bronx Defenders is 60 percent more likely to have his case dismissed than indigent defense clients overall in the Bronx – a county with a high dismissal rate in NYC.

In 2010, the Bronx Defenders processed 12,000 cases and are on track to double that number in 2011 as a result of a new city contract.

Going National

In 2009, The Bronx Defenders approach went national. The Department of Justice granted the Bronx Defenders $250,000 to provide technical assistance to indigent defense offices around the country.

Washoe County, along with Wisconsin State Public Defender office and the public defender in Knoxville, Tennessee, were the first recipients to participate in the program.

Bosler, of Washoe County, said that that the technical assistance provided by Bronx Defenders has helped his office form new relationships with other offices that he would have never previously have contemplated.

“We have started to look out of our general circle,” Bosler said, citing his office’s new relationship with the sheriff’s office. Together, the two previously adversarial organizations have applied for a grant they believe can help both of their clients. They are just concluding their technical assistance period with the Bronx Defenders, and Bosler estimates it could be a year or two for the changes to take effect.

The DOJ grant to Bronx Defenders was renewed in the fall of 2010 for another $250,000, with three more offices to be picked for technical assistance this spring.”

By Cara Tabachnick

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