Public Defenders Make Case for ‘Holistic’ Approach for Clients


Public defenders from around the U.S. took the “holistic defense” message to the National Criminal Justice Association yesterday. The concept, described last year in this feature in The Crime Report, involves defense attorneys going beyond facts of their individual cases and “seeking to address the underlying problems that are driving people into the criminal justice system,” said Robin Steinberg of The Bronx Defenders. Defense lawyers try to solve clients’ problems, which may involve immigration, public housing, government benefits, or a host of other issues. This makes it less likely they will get into trouble again, regardless of how their current case is resolved.

“Looking for better life outcomes translates into lower recidivism,” Steinberg told the annual forum on criminal justice and public safety, which ended yesterday in Jersey City, N.J. The practice is also being tried by public defenders in Wisconsin with good results, said Gina Pruski of the Wisconsin State Defenders Office. “We’re trying to change the image of public defenders: we’re not just trying to get clients off but to improve the community,” she said. Another advocate of holistic defense is Alex Bunin, the first chief public defender in Houston’s Harris County. Bunin, who took office last December, has his staff representing many clients in specialized courts for defendants who are veterans, mentally ill, or drug users.

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