What Went Wrong: Courts Explore New Ways To Deal With Heavy Caseloads, Overflowing Jails

At one Bronx office, the public defenders see each new client more as an opportunity than a burden. Every new case is a chance to make sure the defenders never need to represent that person again.

The Bronx Defenders work from a gleaming new office building near Yankee Stadium, right up the street from the Bronx County courthouse. The waiting room has colorful sofas and chairs, children’s books and coffee. It’s genuinely inviting, an environment that suggests whatever problem brought you there might be less scary than you thought.

When the project started in 1997, said Robin Steinberg, the group’s executive director, the first step was listening. The staff met with members of the group’s Bronx community, trying to understand their problems and their needs.

“We really became aware of the depth and the breadth of the interconnectedness of issues,” Steinberg said. “Even a tiny criminal justice involvement could cascade you and your family into complete disarray.” A teenager arrested for marijuana possession can trigger an eviction for the whole family. An arrest for jumping a turnstile can lead to job loss or even deportation.

Defending the criminal charge alone might help someone avoid prison, or reduce a prison sentence, but it doesn’t account for the ripple effects. Clients at the Bronx Defenders get assigned not just an attorney but a team, a range of people who help them address both the immediate case and any other needs they might have, legal or otherwise. The strategy is called holistic defense.

In providing not just representation in court but advocacy and links to social services, the Bronx Defenders “provide support for the underlying issues that are driving people into the system,” Steinberg said, be they poverty, addiction or mental illness. Helping someone hold on to a job, an apartment or public benefits can help that person maintain stability. A plea deal can bar someone from employment and housing options, which can, in turn, push people into new criminal acts.

Their approach is gaining fans and traction, from fellow defenders and the federal government. The Department of Justice gave the Bronx Defenders $250,000 in 2009 to spread the group’s model across the country and has kept up the support. So far, the Bronx Defenders have trained 12 groups. One of them is the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, Calif., whose Youth Defender project is sort of a mini-Bronx Defenders in reverse, jokes Kate Weisburd, a staff attorney with the project. The center’s core focus is on civil legal needs, and the youth project is the only division that offers representation in criminal cases. Like their Bronx-based mentors, the Youth Defenders look at the whole person, not just the alleged crime.

“A young person’s delinquency case is never just about delinquency. It just isn’t. It’s always just one piece of what’s going on,” Weisburd said. The teen may have unstable housing, mental health needs or parents who aren’t getting the public benefits to which they’re entitled.

“Most fundamentally,” Weisburd said, “we know our clients so well.” That’s a huge contrast from typical public defenders, who may meet their client only moments before a hearing. In Alameda County, where Weisburd works, most courtrooms have what’s called horizontal representation: one public defender who serves all comers on a given day. Then another lawyer represents those defendants the next time they find themselves in court. Vertical representation — the model recommended by the American Bar Association — means a client has the same lawyer from arraignment through the end of the process, whatever that might be. That’s how the Youth Defenders work.

“We know our client. We know everything about them, better than anyone else in that courtroom,” Weisburd said “That’s so helpful, because we can really speak to the judge’s concerns.”

The time it takes to develop that relationship, to gain that sense of a client’s life, is among the things money buys. People who hire a private attorney pay by the hour for the chance to develop rapport that allows their lawyer to humanize them to a judge and explain the consequences for their future and their families if they are convicted, get a harsh sentence, or get sent to prison far away for a long time.

Engaged, zealous representation like that of the Bronx Defenders and Youth Defenders is expensive, but so is locking people up. A year in prison in California costs $42,000 per inmate; in New York, more than $60,000. And those figures don’t factor in the less quantifiable toll, adds the Brennan Center’s Giovanni, like “the loss of human potential and the downstream problems that occur.”

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By Kat Aaron