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System Overload: The Costs of Under-Resourcing Public Defense

NCJ Number
Kate Taylor
Date Published
July 2011
46 pages
After reviewing how public defense systems work, this report identifies the causative factors and symptoms for under-resourced public defense systems, discusses ways in which inadequate public defense systems result in a higher rate of incarceration, and proposes holistic and community-based approaches as a means of improving public defense systems.
A holistic and community-based approach to public defense systems treats the client as a whole person, not simply as a criminal case; and it involves examining and addressing the underlying causes of justice system involvement for clients so as to break their cycle of contact with the criminal justice system. Although most public defenders do not use a client-centered approach to client advocacy, the network of holistic, community-based defenders is growing. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law began the Community Oriented Defender Network (COD) in 2003 in order to "enable defense counsel to engage community-based institutions in order to reduce unnecessary criminal justice system contact." The network has grown to just over 50 agencies. The COD is based on 10 principles: create a client-centered practice; meet clients' needs; partner with the community; fix systemic problems; educate the public; collaborate; address civil legal needs; pursue a multidisciplinary approach; seek necessary support; and engage fellow COD members. How these principles are put into practice is illustrated in the descriptions of four public defender programs: The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia; Neighborhood Defenders Northwest in Baltimore, MD; the Rhode Island Public Defender; and The Bronx Defenders. In promoting such a holistic, community-based approach in public defender systems, public defenders should become advocates for justice system reform that could correct policies and practices whose impact disproportionately impacts communities of color and those with low income. 245 notes