I’ve recently been reading more about “holistic advocacy,” and I think it’s an incredibly important theme for public defenders and others in the indigent defense community around the world to think about (not that I have much expertise on this topic…but here’s my two cents anyway!).

Here’s an excellent quote from Robin Steinberg, Executive Director of the Bronx Defenders, which perfectly describes the concept of holistic advocacy:

At the core of “holistic advocacy” is the understanding that clients come into the criminal justice system with a host of social, economic, political and legal problems. Being an effective, compassionate and zealous advocate means taking on the responsibility of addressing those issues that are driving clients into the criminal justice system. Holistic advocacy contemplates creating a legal “home” for clients where they can access legal representation in criminal, immigration, housing and family court, as well as benefits advocacy and civil rights. Additionally, clients can work with social workers and parent advocates in securing social service intervention and support when needed. Finally, holistic advocacy means being a part of the client community and collaborating with Bronx community partners to find ways to address the broader systemic problems that lead to the over incarceration and arrest of our clients. Holistic advocacy has proven to lead to better case outcomes and more positive life outcomes for clients and their families and should be incorporated into the practices of all public defenders if we are to have any positive impact on the lives of our individual clients and the communities they love.

It seems to me that the model of holistic defense and advocacy is essentially about providing legal aid to an individual that addresses all aspects of their lives, and also acknowledges the deeply interrelated nature of the various problems that indigent defendants often face. Many of those who have criminal records have greater difficulty re-entering into society; they are discriminated against when searching for a job. They are denied public housing, evicted, and thrown onto the street. They can be deported, even if they are legal permanent residents. They can have their children taken away from them by the child welfare system. This interdisciplinary approach acknowledges all these consequences and addresses them as a whole, rather than simply resolving one symptom of the individual’s suffering.

Moreover, holistic advocacy also understands that the roots of an individual’s criminal activity may be deeper than what is seen at first glance. Many individuals are entangled in the criminal justice system because of broader social forces that plunge them into poverty. Mental illnesses, drug use, poverty, homelessness, lack of education, lack of job opportunities, poor family life, abuse and neglect are all reasons that underlie eventual criminal behavior. Many individuals who are arrested and convicted of a crime have had difficulty in one or more of these areas, and thus turn to criminal activity. Using an interdisciplinary model to advocate on behalf of clients means a lawyer takes into account all these forces, all these roots while defending someone, and works to address and solve these underlying causes of the problem in the process. This ensures that the roots of an individual’s criminal behavior is addressed, thus reducing the risk of recidivism.

The Bronx Defenders is obviously an organization that works to actively implement the holistic defense model in their daily work. They recognize that “an arrest is not just an arrest,” but often can have far reaching consequences for an individual, his or her family, and the broader community. Their goal is not just to win in court, but to ensure that their clients are better off in the long-run.

Another organization called Youth Represent, which I have also featured here in the past, also implements the holistic advocacy method by providing indigent defendants with lawyers who are well versed in both criminal and civil legal procedures in order to help clients best solve not only their criminal problems, but also the numerous civil issues that they may have to grapple with as a result of their convictions – such as reentry, housing, employment, education, and immigration issues. The non-profit focuses primarily on youth, but their model is applicable to all populations.

Finally, Neighborhood Defender Services, another public defender agency based in Harlem, also employs this holistic defense model quite effectively. Here’s a quote directly from their website, which I also think encapsulates the model:

A core aspect of our holistic approach to public defense is a commitment to search for the underlying issues that bring our clients into contact with the criminal justice system, and providing comprehensive social service support to avoid or minimize future problems. Furthermore, when our clients face collateral consequences with their employment, schooling, or in family, housing, or immigration court, NDS strives to help our clients resolve those issues, either through direct representation or referrals to appropriate service providers.

Ultimately, we need more organizations and individuals to use the holistic advocacy method in not only defending clients in court and ensuring a good outcome, but also helping clients solve a range of criminal and civil problems that are often deeply interrelated. This type of interdisciplinary advocacy, it seems to me, offers great hope for social change for poor and marginalized communities, and I only hope that it becomes more broadly utilized in the near future.