Thurston Talk: Thurston County Wins Grant from Center for Holistic Defense

The county’s Director of the Office of Assigned Counsel and a handful of staff members traveled to New York City last week thanks to a technical assistance grant from the Center for Holistic Defense.

Thurston County’s Office of Assigned Counsel is one of only four teams in the nation to win a 2014-2015 technical assistance grant that will link county staff with experts from the center to help build the “holistic defense” model into the existing public defender services provided by the county. The grant paid for county staff to travel to the Center for Holistic Defense in New York City to meet with staff and managers, and will also pay for center staff to conduct site visits to Olympia later this year and training in 2015.

“This technical assistance grant will really complement our efforts to stop churning people through the criminal justice system, and instead give us tools and strategies to help us stabilize our clients’ lives to help them stay out of the justice system and succeed.” said Daryl Rodrigues, Director of the county’s Office of Assigned Counsel.

“I’m very excited about this grant, and my hope is that it will really propel our efforts forward when it comes to improving the county’s criminal justice system,” said Thurston County Commissioner Cathy Wolfe. “The holistic defense model has seen great success in New York when it comes to getting better outcomes for clients and reducing criminal justice and incarceration costs. I’m eager to see what we can do in Thurston County to reach those same goals.”

The “holistic defense” model was first developed in the late 1990s by a group of New York public defense attorneys and staff calling themselves The Bronx Defenders. Going beyond just legal defense for low-income clients for their criminal charges, The Bronx Defenders also has developed strategies to offer social work support, social services, plus legal advocacy for civil, family, housing, employment and immigration issues their clients face. The goal is to address the underlying issues that contribute to court involvement, and support clients so that they can break the cycle of criminal justice involvement and gain self-sufficiency while still requiring accountability. The Center for Holistic Defense is part of The Bronx Defenders organization, and the center’s technical assistance grants are supported in part by the Center for Court Innovation and the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.

The Thurston County Office of Assigned Counsel provides legal defense counsel and services for poor citizens of Thurston County who are accused of crimes or who are at risk of having their children removed by the state. The team of 18 attorneys and eight staff members also provide legal defense services for defendants in Tumwater municipal court through a contract with the city.

“One of the first things we’ll do to incorporate the holistic defense strategy in our office is to hire a social worker,” said Rodrigues. “We’re also looking at organizing our referrals for clients to some of the services that are utilized the most. Clearly the referrals for drug treatment and alcohol treatment are high on the list, but I think you would be surprised to learn how many of our clients just need some financial counseling or employment assistance or housing assistance to help get their lives back on track.”

Rodrigues continued, “I’m confident that the assistance and training we’ll get from this grant will start paying off for our clients and for the county in no time.”

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