‘Holistic Defense’ Reduces Jail Time, Study Finds

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Under the practice of “holistic defense,” 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. A study of holistic defenders’ effectiveness finds helping people with their life problems often gets them out of jail, The Marshall Project reports. The study compared outcomes in the Bronx between a holistic defender’s office and a more traditional one, using data from more than 587,000 cases spanning 2000 through 2007 and 2012 through 2014. The research by the RAND Corporation and the University of Pennsylvania Law School found that defendants offered holistic services were about 16 percent less likely to be locked up. They were expected to serve 24 percent shorter jail and prison sentences, without leading to any increase in crime.

Those helped holistically in drug cases saw their likelihood of serving time decrease by 25 percent; expected sentence lengths were reduced by 63 percent. Over 10 years, defendants in 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. In the Bronx, the Legal Aid Society, one of the largest traditional public defender’s offices, and The Bronx Defenders, a holistic start-up formed in 1997, divide between them the 95 percent of defendants who can’t afford a lawyer. They are randomly assigned the cases, making it possible to compare the outcomes. At a holistic defender’s office, clients are given 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. The new study found that holistic defense saved taxpayers $165 million in incarceration costs over a decade, offsetting the price tag of hiring social workers and staffing for a range of client needs.

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