Graham + West blog interview with Robin Steinberg on changing the criminal justice system

Robin Steinberg: On Changing the Criminal Justice System

Robin Steinberg is founder and executive director of the Bronx Defenders, a public defender organization in the Bronx, New York City. Started in 1997 with a team of 8, The Bronx Defenders pioneered a new model for public defense, dubbed “holistic defense,” and today handles approximately 30,000 cases a year, with a staff of over 200, and an annual budget of nearly $19 million. Ms. Steinberg has received numerous distinctions for her contributions to public defense services, including being honored by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and the New York Bar Association. Ms. Steinberg graduated from NYU School of Law in 1982 and is currently a Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School.

What is the difference between public defense and your new approach, holistic defense?

Holistic defense is a unique model delivering public defender services to our clients who are coming through the criminal justice system. It recognizes that the criminal case is not the only issue or problem for the client and that even a minor misdemeanor or arrest could explode their lives in lots of other ways.

In the traditional defender model, the defense lawyer looks solely at the criminal case, usually without any understanding or information about the other areas of the clients’ lives that might ultimately be affected by their criminal disposition. So you might wind up taking what looks to a criminal lawyer like a very good criminal case outcome in criminal court, but not understand that six months later this family is going to lose their public housing because of that conviction, or the family might be deported, or child welfare might become involved in their lives, or they might be denied financial aid because of that conviction. These types of issues are usually hidden from what’s happening in the criminal courthouse. Whatever the issues are, holistic defense is different in that it provides representation and support in all those areas, not just the criminal case.

Statistically speaking, how does your model compare to traditional public defense?

The holistic defense model results in better case outcomes in court, which is obviously important. But equally important is that we can measure and track data like how many evictions that we’re able to stop, how many children we’re able to reunify with their families and how many deportations we can prevent by giving clients the right advice on their criminal cases.

Where is our public defense system failing now?

Well, as a country we certainly need to stop dragging so many people into the criminal justice system. We also need to recognize that we’re targeting only certain communities and defining conduct as criminal and the same conduct as not criminal in another community. And that kind of class disparity has to come to an end. More specifically, if the “get tough on crime” legislation that connected a trip into the criminal justice system with all these other areas of a person’s life, we could easily roll back those laws and regulations and statutes to try to now disconnect those things being connected. That would go a very long way. If you were able to look at what the laws are that create the severe and dire collateral consequences to people and roll that back, you’d make a big difference.

Is the Bronx Defenders’ holistic defense model scalable?

So, the holistic defender model that we practice here at the Bronx Defenders is completely replicable, scalable, and universal. It can be tailored to the individual needs of any jurisdiction in this country or beyond as long as you understand the foundational pillars that hold it up, that make it holistic defense.

If you look at the metrics carefully, you begin to understand that it is less expensive and more efficient for a government agency to provide representation in all the other areas then it is to allow people to lose their homes, go into shelters, and the other various possible consequences. For example, the cost of funding one lawyer to prevent evictions for a 1000 clients is less money and burdensome on the government than allowing people get evicted and go into the shelter system which, on a per cost per day basis, is unbelievably expensive.

Why did you choose a career in public defense?

For me going to law school, represented the ability to have more impact. Having a law degree is a very powerful tool and to put it to use towards social and racial justice in this country felt to me like the greatest gift I could possibly get from getting a law degree.

I have always felt more comfortable [with] the outsider groups than the insider groups. I’ve also always had a very healthy suspicion about authority and power and it always seems to me that if I was going to be lucky enough to get something like a law degree, it was my responsibility and obligation to use that law degree in a powerful way that would be on the side of people who had been denied access to the kind of privilege that I have.

On a more personal level, I grew up with a father who suffered from severe drug addiction. I think that the experience of learning how to accept that very good people whom you love can have very deep flaws, or do bad things, and they’re still worthy of being defended, cared for, and respected was a concept that came very naturally to me. When you’re a kid and you have a parent like that, you love them anyway. So that makes that part of public defense an easy concept for me.

Interview conducted by Nick Antoine. Published June 3, 2014.

Read the original interview on the graham + west blog here.