Building Holistic Defense: The Design and Evaluation of a Social Work Centric Model of Public Defense

Published date01 July 2020
Date01 July 2020
AuthorHeather M. Harris
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17uvdgZomM1UXZ/input 916228CJPXXX10.1177/0887403420916228Criminal Justice Policy ReviewHarris
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2020, Vol. 31(6) 800 –832
Building Holistic Defense:
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
The Design and Evaluation
DOI: 10.1177/0887403420916228
of a Social Work Centric
Model of Public Defense
Heather M. Harris1
Holistic defense is a model of public defense rooted in the early 20th century
recognition that lawyers and social workers should cooperate to advocate with and
for individuals and communities in need. Prior work on holistic defense highlighted
its potential to transform the lives of public defender clients by transforming the legal
practice of attorneys. Comparatively, social workers’ roles in these transformations
have been neglected. Yet many holistic defense programs begin by integrating social
workers onto legal teams. In this article, I describe and evaluate a social work centric
holistic defense model piloted in Santa Barbara, California. My research supports
recent findings that holistic defense improves case outcomes and substantially
reduces incarceration without negatively affecting public safety. I discuss my results
in the context of prior research and the potential for holistic defense to reform
criminal justice. I then make recommendations for the design of future holistic
defense evaluations.
holistic defense, indigent defense, social work, program evaluation, focal concerns,
cognitive transformation
Holistic defense is a model of public defense with origins in the early 20th century
recognition that public interest lawyers and social workers should cooperate to advo-
cate with and for disadvantaged people and communities (Bost, 1932; Bradway, 1929;
1Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, USA
Corresponding Author:
Heather M. Harris, Public Policy Institute of California, 500 Washington Street, Suite 600, San Francisco,
CA 94111, USA.

Collins, 1932; Pound, 1927; Woods, 1905). In recent decades, this long history of
overlapping interests and complementary professional goals among public interest
lawyers and social workers has coalesced into a movement toward “holistic advocacy”
within public defense (Clarke, 2001, p. 408; Deck, 2016; Steinberg & Feige, 2002).
Holistic public defense models broaden the scope of traditional public defense models
to match the scope of social work (Galowitz, 1999).
There are fundamental differences between models of public defense that can be
called holistic and more traditional public defense models. Whereas holistic defense is
client-centered, traditional defense is case-centered. Whereas multidisciplinary teams
provide holistic defense, traditional defense is oriented around the work of criminal
defense attorneys. Finally, whereas holistic defense includes a community component
that draws on the community defense movement of the mid-20th century, traditional
defense generally does not.
The most fundamental difference between models of public defense that are holis-
tic and traditional public defense models is a client-centered versus a case-centered
orientation (Lee et al., 2014). Traditional public defense models are case-centered:
They orient around resolving criminal cases advantageously in the shorter term,
mainly through attorneys’ zealous representation of clients vis-à-vis the court.
Although many traditional public defender offices employ social workers, in such
offices their work primarily supports attorneys’ efforts to resolve criminal cases
(Steinberg & Feige, 2002). For example, a social worker might secure a client a spot
in a substance abuse treatment program. The attorney can then leverage the client’s
treatment to negotiate a better sentencing outcome, such as probation instead of jail
time. After the case closes, the attorney, social worker, and client are likely to interact
again only if, for example, the client violates probation or is arraigned on new charges.
In traditional public defense models, clients have longer term relationships with attor-
neys and social workers mainly through the “revolving doors” of clients’ ongoing
legal problems (Lipsky, 2010, p. 78).
The desire to more effectively address clients’ ongoing justice involvement—to
close those revolving doors—motivated the movement toward holistic advocacy
(Steinberg & Feige, 2002). Underlying this movement is the understanding that the
legal problems public defender clients face are often the inevitable consequences of
their unaddressed extralegal problems. Nearly a century of legal, criminological, and
sociological research has shown that the extralegal challenges justice-involved people
face are socially rooted in poverty and neighborhood disadvantage, which create insta-
bility in people’s lives. This instability manifests as, for example, untreated physical
and mental health conditions (Duncan & Kawachi, 2018), violence (Sampson &
Wilson, 1995; Western, 2015), substance abuse (Boardman et al., 2001; Karriker-Jaffe,
2011), residential instability (Shaw & McKay, 1942), unemployment (Wilson, 1987),
and a dearth of social support (Turney & Harknett, 2010). Until these underlying chal-
lenges are addressed, public defender clients are likely to remain entrenched in the
criminal justice system because their lives will remain destabilized (Clarke, 2001;
Steinberg, 2013). Moreover, resolving a single criminal case does little to address
these underlying extralegal challenges—and may even exacerbate them. Pleading

Criminal Justice Policy Review 31(6)
guilty can result in job loss, family separation, and civic disenfranchisement (Pinard,
2004; Smyth, 2005). Holistic public defense models seek to mitigate these conse-
quences and to address these underlying challenges.
Holistic public defense models extend zealous representation from a single crimi-
nal case to the client’s life course, which necessitates a team-based, multidisciplinary
approach that leverages and expands community resources. Each client’s needs dictate
the work of the holistic defense team. In many holistic models, this also means that
clients’ needs determine the composition of the team itself. For example, some holistic
offices employ immigration attorneys who only work on teams with clients in need of
their services.
Holistic public defense models also include a community component that leverages
and builds community problem-solving resources. A community-based approach is a
natural extension of the recognition that clients’ problems have evolved over time in
disadvantaged local environments. Addressing such problems requires understanding
how clients’ life courses connect to the communities where they live—how they
became destabilized and how they can be stabilized. Such an approach further recog-
nizes that meeting clients’ needs may require specialized community-based social ser-
vices external to public defender offices. Thus, addressing the challenges faced by
whole clients situated in whole communities necessitates a multidisciplinary and com-
munity-specific skillset that grows as holistic practices deepen (Clarke, 2001; Craige
& Saur, 1981; Galowitz, 1999; Steinberg, 2013).
These features of holistic defense—that it is client-centered, team-based, multidis-
ciplinary, and community-oriented—suggest that holistic defense models will vary
considerably with clients’ needs and resources, public defender resources and capa-
bilities, and community resources and capabilities.1 No holistic defense model is likely
to replicate any other. Although holistic defense models are likely to vary, the objec-
tives of holistic defense for clients are generally similar.2 They include improved crim-
inal case outcomes, life stabilization, and reduced recidivism (Anderson et al., 2019;
Buchanan & Orme, 2018; National Symposium on Indigent Defense, 2000; Wald,
1972). As more holistic defense models are evaluated, the core features of each can be
identified and evaluated to determine how they achieve these objectives. However, at
present, so few holistic defense models have been evaluated that the most fundamental
information about holistic defense—whether some or all of its potential models
achieved these objectives—has not yet been provided.
Prior Holistic Defense Evaluations
Only two prior studies assessed the impact of a model of holistic defense on clients’
criminal case and recidivism outcomes (Anderson et al., 2019; Buchanan & Orme,
2018). Together they indicated that, compared with public defender clients who did
not receive holistic services, holistic defense clients experienced better sentencing out-
comes and about equal chances of recidivism. Sarah Buchanan and John Orme (2018)
assessed 2-year recidivism outcomes for public defender clients in Knox County,
Tennessee, using a propensity score–matched design. Some public defender clients

received social work services; others did not. After 2 years, clients who received social
work services were 3.8% less likely to be charged with a misdemeanor (t = 2.03) and
were charged with 0.81 fewer misdemeanors (t = 2.03). However, clients who received
social work services were also 7.9% more likely to be charged with a felony (t =
2.94). The frequency of felony charges did not differ by group. These somewhat
equivocal results may be attributable...

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