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Scott Levy, of the Bronx Defenders, with a client who was to be arraigned in 2012 at the Bronx County Hall of Justice in New York after an arrest for marijuana possession.
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The Courts See a Crime. These Lawyers See a Whole Life.

Pairing old-school defense with attention to real-life problems gets people out of jail.

On any given day in this nation’s courtrooms, there’s a parade of defendants struggling with homelessness, mental illness or drug addiction.

That is the fundamental insight of “holistic defense,” a form of legal representation pioneered in the Bronx two decades ago. Using this method, public defender’s offices not only help clients with their court cases but also try to address the life circumstances that led them to commit crimes in the first place.

And according to one of the first ever large-scale, empirical studies of holistic defenders’ effectiveness, helping people with their life problems often gets them out of jail, too.

The study compared outcomes in the Bronx between a prototypical holistic defender’s office and a more traditional one using court data from more than 587,000 cases spanning 2000 through 2007 and 2012 through 2014. The research, by the nonprofit RAND Corporation and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, found that defendants offered holistic services were about 16 percent less likely to get locked up. They were also expected to serve 24 percent shorter jail and prison sentences—without leading to any increase in crime.

In drug cases, those represented holistically saw their likelihood of serving time decrease by 25 percent; expected sentence lengths were reduced by 63 percent.

Over 10 years, defendants under the holistic model spent 1.1 million fewer days behind bars. About 4,500 people who otherwise would have gone to jail avoided it completely.

The study took advantage of a natural experiment occurring in Bronx courtrooms every day. The Legal Aid Society, one of the oldest (founded in 1876) and largest traditional public defender’s offices in the United States, and The Bronx Defenders, a holistic start-up formed in 1997, divide between them the 95 percent of defendants in the borough who can’t afford a lawyer. They are randomly assigned the cases, ensuring an essentially pure comparison despite the many confounding variables of the criminal justice system.

At a holistic defender’s office, clients are not represented by a single defense attorney; instead, they’re furnished with a team of criminal, civil and family attorneys, social workers and non-lawyer specialists who help with their housing issues, food stamps and other public benefits. Together, these advocates identify the biggest challenges in each defendant’s life and communicate that information to judges, who otherwise face an assembly line of indistinguishable cases proceeding before them each day.

By simply providing more human information about each client, the notion is, holistic defenders can help judges make more precise determinations about whom to divert from jail.

Of course, not every jurisdiction in America can afford—or has the political will to provide—this caliber of legal services to poor people. Many public defender’s offices around the country have claimed to be “holistic” (it’s become something of a buzzword), but few have the actual staffing and training to back it up. In rural areas, social workers, drug-treatment providers and mental-health services, let alone high-quality lawyers, are few and far between. And the kind of intensive (and therefore time-consuming) attention to each case that The Bronx Defenders offers clients isn’t acceptable to many judges outside New York City whose priority is moving their dockets along.

Governments are only mandated under the Sixth Amendment and by the Supreme Court to supply legal representation to low-income people at “critical stages” of criminal cases, in which the loss of liberty is a possible sanction.

“It is very difficult to get policymakers to say that they will fund $1 more than what is constitutionally required,” said David Carroll, executive director of the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center.

Life Inside

Essays by people in prison and others who have experience with the criminal justice system

Justine Olderman, executive director of The Bronx Defenders, acknowledged in an interview that her organization’s demonstrated effectiveness is possible in part because of the robust funding dispensed by the city of New York as well as the philanthropic donations available there.

But the new RAND study found that holistic defense saved New York taxpayers $165 million in incarceration costs over a decade, offsetting the higher price tag of hiring social workers and staffing for a range of client needs.

With or without holistic services, the study concluded, public defender’s offices of any kind are much more effective than private lawyers appointed by judges, which is the system for providing indigent defense in much of the country.

Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of criminal defense at The Legal Aid Society, said her organization is not as different from The Bronx Defenders as it’s been made out to be. “We don’t want this study to make it seem as though we pit each other against one another,” she said.

The only difference between the two, Luongo points out, is that Legal Aid is a much larger, unionized institution operating citywide, with less flexibility in how it can operate than a still-growing start-up.

From 2000 to 2007, she said, when much of the study’s data was gathered, stop-and-frisk policing was in full effect around New York City, leading to massive caseloads for Legal Aid lawyers and little time or resources for addressing their clients’ non-legal needs. After the organization fought for and in 2009 won caps on the number of cases that public defenders could be assigned, they were able to hire more social workers and follow the holistic model.

From 2009 to 2013, the ratio of attorneys to social workers at Legal Aid in the Bronx dramatically improved, according to internal statistics. By 2015, they and the city’s other institutional defenders had 35 percent more funds to enhance their on-the-ground client services.

“The takeaway of this report is to say that fully funded [defenders], lower caseloads, the ability to have trained, supervised staff that have experience and that are client-forward and innovative is what you need,” said Luongo. “And I don’t care what you call it… that’s what we do.”

In the end, resolving a lifetime of poverty and systemic barriers to success may be too much for public defenders alone to accomplish. The period of time they have to work with clients is too small a dosage, the RAND study suggests, to resolve such intractable problems. According to court data, getting holistic legal help during one case had no discernible positive effect on people’s likelihood to commit crimes in the future.

For Wendy Porrata, 45, though, holistic representation has been a lasting blessing. After running up a long rap sheet of drug-related arrests in the 1990s and early 2000s, she relied on The Bronx Defenders not just to get her out of jail, she says, but also for a couch to sleep on (in their office) and even help with her schoolwork.

Now, she’s a professional social worker herself. “We should bottle up whatever [they] did for me,” she said, “and provide it to people everywhere.”