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How Holistic Public Defense Can Help Cut Mass Incarceration

Five years ago, a public defender's office in Delaware became one of two two-year pilot programs for Partners for Justice (PFJ), a scrappy nonprofit with an improbable mission: to transform the public criminal defense system using holistic approaches. Their predecessors, an organization called the Bronx Defenders, also advocate for better criminal defenses that benefit the accused, their families, the community, and the public at large. Public defenders represent 80% of all people charged with a crime, and they typically work in offices that are underfunded and understaffed. Their clients are primarily poor people of color who are often in need of health care, housing, transportation, addiction treatment, child care, and a host of other services, The New Yorker reports. However, lawyers are not social workers and lack the time or the skills to help their clients. As a public defender in Santa Clara County, and in the Bronx, Emily Galvin-Almanza, P.FJ’s co-founder and co-executive director, with Rebecca Solow, witnessed this problem firsthand. “If you are a defender practicing in an office where there are only criminal-defense attorneys, it’s like being in a hospital with no nurses,” Galvin-Almanza said The way to change this dynamic, she believes, is to embed a cohort of advocates in each office to take on tasks that would boost a client’s chances for a good outcome, not just in court but in life.

The advocates would be trained in storytelling so they could write a persuasive account of a defendant’s circumstances, or a mitigation memo, and would help them navigate social services, find housing, enroll in benefits programs, and in other ways stabilize their lives. PFJ calls this approach “collaborative defense,” because the accused are working alongside the advocates and the legal team. Both organizations have been remarkably successful in demonstrating a holistic approach to criminal defenses. A study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the Rand Corporation found that, over ten years, defendants represented by the Bronx Defenders spent more than a million fewer days behind bars, and well more than 4,000 people avoided jail time entirely. Galvin-Almanza said that, in Delaware, in nearly 90% of the cases in which a mitigation memo was submitted, PFJ clients receive no jail or prison time, and more than 70% percent have their charges dropped. As a consequence, she estimates that PJF has prevented six hundred years of incarceration in the state. There are now PFJ-trained advocates in twenty-four locations as diverse as the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana and the urban centers of Houston and Miami.


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