With support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Bronx Defenders launched the Center for Holistic Defense in 2010. The Center for Holistic Defense has issued its first "request for proposals" (or RFP), which will allow it to help three jurisdictions in the development of a holistic defense practice.
The Bronx Defenders, through its Center for Holistic Defense, is moving to shift public defense practice in the United States in a direction that is more aware of the client as a whole person with a broad range of challenges and needs that interconnect with their criminal case.
The organization, which provides free legal services to indigent residents of the Bronx borough of New York City, launched the Center for Holistic Defense in 2010 to help public defense offices around the United States learn how to incorporate holistic defense principles into their work.
In its model of holistic defense, each Bronx Defenders client receives services from an interdisciplinary group of experts who work together as a team to address the client’s needs, both in terms of their criminal defense and with regards to other issues that may help the client improve their well-being and avoid further involvement with the criminal justice system. The Bronx Defenders has staff trained in many disciplines in addition to criminal law, including social work, parent advocacy, family law, and immigration law. The Bronx Defenders is able to be more responsive to clients’ needs while keeping the cost per case comparable to that of other public defense providers. “Being able to offer more services is a function of allocation of resources. I resist the idea that providing services is an add-on; it is integral to public defense,” Steinberg said.
The Center for Holistic Defense, in partnership with the Center for Court Innovation, is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). For the second year in a row, a BJA grant has allowed the Center for Holistic Defense to issue a “request for proposals” (or RFP), which will allow it to help three additional jurisdictions in the development of a holistic defense practice. Bronx Defenders will encourage the three jurisdictions—which will be chosen for their geographic and organizational diversity—to practice holistic defense in the way that makes the most sense for them. In response to its previous solicitation, the Center for Holistic Defense assisted the Knox County (TN) Public Defender’s Community Law Office, the Wisconsin State Public Defender, and the Washoe County (NV) Public Defender in the development of holistic defense programs.
“We recognize that there can be a spectrum of holistic defense practice. We want to encourage each jurisdiction to practice holistic defense in the way that is most appropriate to their fiscal and organizational circumstances. For example, for those organizations that are deeply underfunded and struggling to cope under the burden of their caseloads, we would like to show that there are mechanisms for creatively using existing resources in their communities that will not increase costs,” Steinberg explained.
(Applicants who wish to be considered for the RFP should visit http://www.bronxdefenders.org/press/public-defender-offices-eligible-free-technical-assistance for more information. The deadline for submissions is Wednesday, March 2, 2011.)
In addition to supporting the jurisdictions selected under the BJA-sponsored program, the Center provides assistance to all comers through a website offering instructional material on developing a holistic practice. Center staff also provides direct technical assistance—through formal consulting relationships, site visits to the Bronx Defender offices, and being an informal resource center and depository of information—to help move more organizations towards holistic defense.
Robin Steinberg, executive director of Bronx Defenders, founded the Bronx Defenders’ in 1997 after years of practicing as a public defender and exposure to public defense practice across the nation. It became clear to her that to be more responsive to clients, public defense attorneys needed to broaden the scope of the services they offered. “Clients come to public defenders with many challenges other than their criminal case. Often those challenges, such as addiction, joblessness, possible deportation, or loss of housing, are more pressing than the criminal charges faced by the client, and if those issues are not addressed, clients are destined to cycle back into the criminal justice system,” Steinberg said.
In the 2010 Padilla v. Kentucky decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that attorneys representing criminal defendants have an obligation to advise their clients of the risk of deportation associated with a guilty plea. This ruling affirms the work of the Bronx Defenders, which has been demonstrating for nearly 15 years that zealous defense of criminal defendants must include a holistic assessment of the client’s needs, including understanding how collateral consequences like deportation by immigration authorities may impact defense strategy.