This article offers the first large-scale, rigorous evaluation of the impact of holistic defense on criminal justice outcomes.
Debates over mass incarceration emphasize policing, bail, and sentencing reform, but give little attention to indigent defense. This omission seems surprising, given that interactions with government-provided counsel critically shape the experience of most criminal defendants. This neglect reflects a lack of evidence-based knowledge regarding indigent defense, making it difficult to identify effective reforms. One approach that continues to gain support is holistic defense, in which public defenders work in interdisciplinary teams to address both the immediate case and the underlying life circumstances such as drug addiction, mental illness, or family or housing instability that contribute to client contact with the criminal justice system. Holistic defense contrasts with the traditional public defense model that emphasizes criminal representation and courtroom advocacy. Proponents contend holistic defense improves case outcomes and reduces recidivism by better addressing clients' underlying needs, while critics argue that diverting resources and attention from criminal advocacy weakens results. Although the holistic approach is widely embraced, there is no systematic evidence demonstrating the relative merits of the holistic approach. In the Bronx, New York City, a holistic defense provider (the Bronx Defenders) and a traditional defender (the Legal Aid Society) operate side-by-side within the same court system, with case assignment determined quasi-randomly based on court shift timing. Using administrative data covering over half a million cases and a quasi-experimental research design, the current study estimated the causal effect of holistic defense on case outcomes and future offending. Holistic defense does not affect conviction rates, but it reduces the likelihood of a custodial sentence by 16 percent and expected sentence length by 24 percent. Over the 10-year study period, holistic defense in the Bronx resulted in nearly 1.1 million fewer days of custodial punishment. Holistic defense has neither a positive nor an adverse effect on criminal justice contacts 1 year after arraignment and beyond. Although holistic defense does not dramatically reduce recidivism, as some proponents have claimed, strengthening indigent defense apparently offers considerable potential to reduce incarceration without harming public safety. Accordingly, this promising model deserves future research beyond the criminal justice system and in other jurisdictions and a more prominent place in conversations about how to address mass incarceration. (publisher abstract modified)