RAND study finds that Bronx Defenders’ holistic defense saved clients 1.1 million days behind bars

BRONX, N.Y. —  A new study released today by RAND and the University of Pennsylvania Law School finds that The Bronx Defenders’ unique model of holistic defense significantly reduces incarceration rates, sentence length, and pre-trial detention, saving taxpayer dollars, without harming public safety. In total, the study estimates that The Bronx Defenders has saved its clients 1.1 million days behind bars.

The study, “The Effects of Holistic Defense on Criminal Justice Outcomes,” to be published in the Harvard Law Review, examined over half a million cases in Bronx Criminal Court over a 10-year period.

The study found that the implementation of BxD’s holistic public defender model in the Bronx:

  • helped clients avoid 1.1 million days of incarceration,
  • reduced incarceration rates by 16%,
  • cut pre-trial detention by 9%
  • shortened sentence length by 24%, and
  • saved New York taxpayers an estimated $165 million on housing costs alone.

Despite an appreciably higher release rate, those who received holistic defense services were shown to commit no more crime than those incarcerated for longer periods, in a follow-up spanning up to 10 years after case resolution. And while holistic defense does not reduce conviction rates, it does result in an increase of non-incarceratory sentences.

The Bronx Defenders, founded in 1997, pioneered holistic defense to address the issues that drive clients into the criminal legal system as well as mitigate the devastating consequences of that system involvement. To date, BxD has trained 54 public defender offices across 38 states and 5 countries that are seeking to adopt a more holistic model.

About Holistic Defense

Holistic defense seeks to understand and address the struggles that lead to justice involvement. Holistic defense does more than ask about the circumstance of clients’ cases — it requires teams to spend time getting to know clients as individuals. The Bronx Defenders’ social workers and social service advocates  learn about the challenges that clients face and help them tackle the issues that stand in the way of the futures they seek.

The holistic defense model requires teams go where clients go, beyond the confines of a single case or courtroom. Once someone is in the justice system, it can be staggeringly hard to get out. An arrest for a drug charge can lead to a deportation case.  A housing case can lead to a child welfare case. Each client is assigned to an interdisciplinary team comprised of criminal, civil, immigration and family defense attorneys — alongside social workers and non-lawyer advocates — who go where the client goes, addressing the complex web of legal issues, cases, and consequences that can arise from justice involvement.

Justine Olderman, Executive Director of The Bronx Defenders, said:

“By reducing mass incarceration one client at a time, holistic defense is not only transforming the way that low-income people are represented but is actually transforming the system. Our model reduces incarceration rates, sentence length, and pre-trial detention because we do more than ask about our clients’ cases. We spend time getting to know our clients, learning about their challenges and strengths, and identifying all the possible consequences of their case. We then use this deeper understanding to fight for greater pre-trial release and alternatives to incarceration. We also use this deeper knowledge to fight for justice in our clients’ related housing, child welfare, and immigration cases.

Holistic defense should be recognized as a critical tool in the movement for criminal justice reform. It should also be recognized as the model that all clients deserve.”


Contact: Anna Kim (annakim@bronxdefenders.org) 646-504-2977