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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.