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Community-Oriented Defense: Start Now

  • Thomas Giovanni
Published: July 20, 2012

Community-Oriented Defense: Start Now examines the different ways public defender offices across the country are working to transform the indigent defense system, using the limited resources they are given.

Offices attain more successful outcomes for individual people and entire communities when they can address the unique needs of their clients. This report highlights projects that public defender offices have implemented over the past year. The projects demonstrate that even by starting small, offices can lay the foundation for broader reforms of the indigent defense system.

Download the report (PDF)


Over 50 years of legislative budgetary neglect from all levels of government have created an underfunded public defense system where inadequate investigations, abbreviated case preparation, and inadequate court advocacy are the norm.

  • The average amount of time spent by a public defender at arraignment is often less than six minutes per case. And that is when counsel is present and allowed to give information, which is not always the case. In many large jurisdictions, over half of all cases are “disposed of.”
  • One set of workload recommendations for public defenders suggests 150 felony cases or 400 misdemeanor cases per year. Most jurisdictions across the country exceed these recommendations. In some jurisdictions, public defenders may have more than 300 cases at one time. With such high workloads, it is impossible to represent individual clients while adhering to even minimal standards of professionalism.
  • The situation is so dire that public debate about the criminal justice system centers around priorities for repair, not whether repairs are needed. Holistic defense practices are an important improvement to public defense service delivery, and the Community-Oriented Defender (COD) Network works to spread those practices.

The Brennan Center founded the Community-Oriented Defender Network to support defenders and their allies who seek more effective ways to fix the broken defense system. Members of the Network advocate for comprehensive representation, community engagement, and systemic reform. They help communities become healthier by reducing the criminal justice system involvement of community members.

The Network’s mission is to make holistic defense practices the normal standard for indigent defense in this country. Although there is some variation in service delivery reflected in the different terms,  “comprehensive,” “client-centered,” “whole client,” “therapeutic,” and “community-oriented” are all roughly synonymous to holistic defense.

Holistic defenders believe their mission is not only to defend, but also to assist clients—both in the immediate case, and in the long term. The defenders’ services can be as varied as the clients’ needs, including pre-arrest services; multi-forum representation; accessing community-based treatment programs; and many other innovative means of service delivery.

From Padilla to Lafler to Frye, the Supreme Court is in the process of recognizing the need to expand indigent defense beyond traditional limits. Throughout the country, service providers are utilizing holistic defense practices to create and implement innovative projects as they attempt to defend their clients and strengthen their clients’ communities.