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A Holistic Approach to Legal Advocacy

For poor, persecuted communities, helping them overcome legal challenges isn’t nearly enough.

  • Blake Strode
September 7, 2021
View the entire Punitive Excess series

This essay is part of the Bren­nan Center’s series examin­ing the punit­ive excess that has come to define Amer­ica’s crim­inal legal system.

On a spring after­noon in 2014, a husband and wife left a local community center in St. Louis County, Missouri, to return home to their seven chil­dren. Within seconds, they were stopped by a police squad car. When officers approached the vehicle, they went to the passen­ger’s side and asked the husband for his name, claim­ing that there had been a recent report about someone who matched his descrip­tion. Despite his assur­ances that he was not the man in ques­tion, the husband was asked to step out of the car and was placed under arrest moments later. (He was, indeed, never charged with any of the wrong­do­ing that formed the pretext for the stop.) When his wife stepped out of the car in protest, she, too, was placed under arrest.

The couple was taken to a local jail, placed in filthy, over­crowded cells, and given bonds of $2,000 each. They would both remain in jail for a month, unable to post bail and not once appear­ing before a judge. While incar­cer­ated, their chil­dren were uprooted from their home and taken into the care of multiple relat­ives. Even­tu­ally, exhausted and desper­ate, they both agreed to plead guilty to a series of muni­cipal charges in exchange for their release. They would still be respons­ible, they were told, for paying nearly $2,000 each, this time as fines and fees for their supposed offenses.

I met this husband and wife more than a year later, in my very first month as a Skad­den Fellow and staff attor­ney with Arch­City Defend­ers, a legal advocacy organ­iz­a­tion in St. Louis. When I met them, their memor­ies from that harrow­ing month were still fresh. They had lost a full month of earn­ings for their house­hold, placing them and their entire family under even more dire finan­cial strain than they already had to bear as a large family with incon­sist­ent sources of income. They were strug­gling to pay rent and util­it­ies, care for their chil­dren, and find more stable employ­ment. 

But despite all of that, their reason for coming to us was that they were still paying hundreds of dollars per month to the local muni­cipal court that had over­seen their jail­ing. The so-called “pay docket” was approach­ing. At these monthly dock­ets, they were expec­ted to make payments of $100 each on their debts, and they could not keep up.

There are several elements of this story that are partic­u­larly egre­gious, but the basic dynam­ics — people who are living peril­ously on the margins being targeted and exploited by the crim­inal legal system — are, in fact, not at all unusual. Susan Butler Plum, the found­ing director of the Skad­den Fellow­ship Found­a­tion, which places new lawyers in public interest posi­tions across the coun­try, has often under­scored the signi­fic­ance of anti-poverty legal work by posit­ing, “My defin­i­tion of poverty is that each thing compounds the next thing.”

It is a defin­i­tion that has returned to my mind many times during my work at Arch­City Defend­ers. Traffic tick­ets, court debts, crim­inal charges, jail, bail, evic­tion, child support, custody, consumer abuse, home­less­ness: our clients do not exper­i­ence these trau­matic chal­lenges one at a time — they exper­i­ence many, all at once or in rapid succes­sion.

When we know that our field is char­ac­ter­ized by system­atic under­fund­ing of indi­gent defense, when 90 percent or more of tenants faced with evic­tion proceed­ings must defend them­selves without coun­sel, and when there’s a complete dearth of free (or even afford­able) legal services for a range of needs, from family law to consumer protec­tion to public bene­fits claims – when we know all this, how can we possibly justify a system in which the over­whelm­ing major­ity of people subjec­ted to archaic legal processes are left to navig­ate those processes with no support what­so­ever? How can we stom­ach a system that does little more than further trau­mat­ize, destabil­ize, and extract from the very people who already have the least? And what can we do differ­ently in the face of entrenched support for the status quo and resist­ance to struc­tural change?

At Arch­City Defend­ers (ACD), we describe ourselves as a holistic legal advocacy organ­iz­a­tion. We are an inde­pend­ent, nonprofit civil rights and legal aid organ­iz­a­tion with a staff of 30 people — about half of them attor­neys and the other half a mix of social work­ers, paralegals, commu­nic­a­tions profes­sion­als, fundraisers, oper­a­tions special­ists, and organ­izers. ACD was foun­ded to fill a gap in legal services in the St. Louis region, and even with the signi­fic­ant growth of our team over the past 12 years, that gap contin­ues to exceed by far the scale of services that we can provide. In part for this reason, the word “holistic” is cent­ral to who we are, how we under­stand the world and the system in which we are embed­ded, and why we believe that tradi­tional legal prac­tice has only deepened some of the most funda­mental injustices in this coun­try.

For us, this word also takes on a dual mean­ing in our daily prac­tice.

On one level, we provide holistic defense and legal repres­ent­a­tion in our work with indi­vidual clients. This type of holistic defense is based upon the model developed and popular­ized by the Bronx Defend­ers. Instead of defin­ing our indi­vidual services by discrete areas of legal prac­tice, our holistic direct services consist of crim­inal or muni­cipal defense; civil legal repres­ent­a­tion for evic­tions, social secur­ity/disab­il­ity and similar public bene­fits claims, child support, custody, and other family law matters; and wrap­around social support in the form of rehous­ing services and case manage­ment, emer­gency rental and util­ity assist­ance, and support­ive refer­rals to a vast network of social service and treat­ment providers.

Under­stand­ing that the chal­lenges facing our clients are complex and inter­sect­ing, our goal is to support people in ways that reflect the real­ity of their lives. Some­times, this is as simple as listen­ing to clients and believ­ing what they say about the most press­ing issues they are facing, instead of substi­tut­ing our judg­ment for theirs. We can only be effect­ive in our work if we develop trust­ing rela­tion­ships with our clients, and that requires that we respect them as the experts on their own lives.

The other element of our holistic advocacy is an emphasis on enga­ging at the systems level as well as the indi­vidual level. Over time, we have developed four pillars in our model: holistic direct services (described above), impact civil rights litig­a­tion, media and policy advocacy, and community collab­or­a­tion. If our holistic direct services focus on provid­ing a range of support to clients as they navig­ate oppress­ive systems, the other pillars focus on expos­ing, combat­ing, and dismant­ling those very systems. In the face of such pervas­ive injustice, an effect­ive defense is crit­ical, but a stra­tegic offense is equally essen­tial.

Our indi­vidual client repres­ent­a­tion forms the found­a­tion of the fights that we under­take through affirm­at­ive civil rights litig­a­tion. These cases, often but not always class actions, chal­lenge abus­ive poli­cing, debt­ors’ pris­ons, cash bail, unfair hous­ing prac­tices, and a range of prac­tices that crim­in­al­ize poverty and home­less­ness. Through litig­a­tion, we seek not only policy trans­form­a­tion, but also monet­ary compens­a­tion for our clients and others simil­arly harmed. Again, we know from our clients that this is a prior­ity.

Our media and policy advocacy with and on behalf of our clients extends far beyond the courts. Having our clients and their famil­ies tell their stor­ies fully and honestly is the most power­ful mech­an­ism for rais­ing aware­ness and spark­ing action, both by poli­cy­makers and every­day people. Whether through tradi­tional media, social media, or other creat­ive storytelling means, our aim is to replace the many dehu­man­iz­ing tropes about our clients with nuanced repres­ent­a­tions that honor the truth of their exper­i­ences. We also seek oppor­tun­it­ies to connect these exper­i­ences to policy in the form of reports, white papers, open letters, and access­ible, illus­trated “know your rights” guides.

Lastly, the efforts aimed at the most last­ing and long-term change are those taken in collab­or­a­tion with part­ners, clients, and other community members to trans­form our systems and reima­gine what is possible. Ulti­mately, organ­ized community is the only sustain­able means of achiev­ing the change we seek. Erad­ic­at­ing poverty and defeat­ing white suprem­acy are polit­ical projects. They will not be won in the courts. So, if we are commit­ted to faith­fully serving our clients and pursu­ing our mission, we must shed the tired falla­cies of “neut­ral­ity” and “objectiv­ity” and be fully in the fight for our collect­ive liber­a­tion. That means support­ing the work of organ­iz­ing campaigns, build­ing coali­tions, and shift­ing power to those we serve.

For people like the couple I described at the begin­ning of this essay, there are rarely fairy-tale endings. Even after resolv­ing the imme­di­ate legal issue and success­fully fight­ing back against the city — receiv­ing signi­fic­ant monet­ary damages for the harm they suffered and secur­ing policy changes prevent­ing the use of secured cash bail to hold anyone in jail on muni­cipal charges — they have contin­ued to face chal­lenges with hous­ing, employ­ment, poli­cing, and even school access for their chil­dren during peri­ods of hous­ing instabil­ity.

I will never forget one after­noon when I picked this couple up from their home in Black, low-income North St. Louis City to prepare for a court appear­ance. As we rode down a main thor­ough­fare lined with closed, boarded-up busi­nesses and check-cash­ing shops, the husband remarked, almost to no one, “When they start the concen­tra­tion camps, they’re coming here first.”

His wife, sitting behind him, narrowed her eyes and looked at him. “What are you talk­ing about?” she asked incred­u­lously. “They’ve already got concen­tra­tion camps. We’re living in concen­tra­tion camps.”

I share this not for shock value or as polit­ical comment­ary. Whether or not you believe the meta­phor to be apt is irrel­ev­ant. The point is that poor, Black and brown, hyper-crim­in­al­ized, and under­served communit­ies across the coun­try under­stand the immens­ity of the chal­lenges stacked against them. The only way for us to be of any use as lawyers and advoc­ates is to under­stand the same, and to marshal every tool at our disposal at every turn. Those we serve deserve noth­ing less.

Blake Strode is the exec­ut­ive director of Arch­City Defend­ers.