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Community-Oriented Defenders: The Lawyers You’d Want for Yourself

Rather than feel disengaged and discouraged by a broken justice system, holistic defenders fight daily for their clients in court and to improve their communities at home.

  • Emily Harris
September 8, 2012

This summer, I joined defense attorneys from around the country to attend the Brennan Center’s annual Community-Oriented Defender Network conference. The Network focuses on “holistic defense,” which is a philosophy of lawyering that treats clients as people with complex situations and backgrounds, instead of just seeing them as cases to be cleared from a docket. Holistic defenders are the type of defense attorneys that anyone charged with a crime would want for themselves or their loved ones.

The Brennan Center’s COD Network connects and trains holistic defender offices across the nation. A marked shift from the stereotype of a “public pretender,” holistic defense is a return to the traditional notions of lawyering. These attorneys understand that the immediate case that brings a person into the criminal justice system is just one part of their lives. Though underpaid, and often underfunded, holistic defenders provide assistance for clients beyond the basic legal services related to the immediate criminal case. Unfortunately, not all offices can afford to practice this philosophy, and while the COD Network stresses small, cost-effective changes that can make offices more holistic, they are not the norm.

This year’s keynote speaker at the COD conference was Regina Kelly, whose story is depicted in the film American Violet. She was represented by a “traditional” defender, and her story reinforced the unique value of holistic defenders. Based on the false testimony of a single confidential police informant, Kelly and 27 other residents of her public housing building were arrested and charged with distributing cocaine – crimes they never committed. Kelly ignored her defender’s advice to plead guilty. Because she chose to proceed to trial, she ended up incarcerated for almost a month because she was unable to afford the high bail.  

After release from jail, Kelly had to face another legal battle, this time in family court. Because of her incarceration, the state attempted to remove her children from her custody. Kelly could not afford to hire a lawyer to represent her in family court. If Kelly would have had a holistic defender, he would have better understood why Kelly did not want to plead guilty and also represented her in family court. Ultimately, Kelly and the others wrongly accused helped to change Texas law so that people in similar situations would not end up wrongly incarcerated. That change set off a chain of events leading to the prototypical ‘tough on crime’ state beginning to reform its criminal justice system and become a national leader paving the way toward reducing prison populations and costs.

After hearing Kelly’s story, the defenders at the conference enthusiastically asked her what more they could do to represent their clients in such situations.

As evidenced by this and the other discussions at the conference, holistic defenders emerge from their daily battles in courtrooms as passionate and enthusiastic advocates for their clients. Rather than feel disengaged and discouraged by a broken justice system, these attorneys fight daily for their clients in court and to improve their communities at home. Holistic defenders also persevere, client-by-client, day-by-day, to dismantle and interrupt the system of mass incarceration that funnels more and more people into prison. Simply put, holistic defenders are, without a doubt, the attorneys you would want to represent you.