Community Oriented Defense: Stronger Public Defenders

July 21, 2010

Full report (PDF)
COD Ten Principles (PDF)
About the Authors


Executive Summary

More people travel though America’s criminal justice system than through any other justice system in the industrialized world, and, overwhelmingly, these people are from low-income, African-American and Latino communities. Yet there is but scarce funding available for local indigent defense systems. And legislators face little pressure to provide necessary support to this unpopular constituency.

Public disinvestment in social services has left growing segments of the population ill-equipped to address economic, emotional, physical and mental health problems that can precipitate contact with the criminal justice system when left unaddressed. As a result of these and other deficiencies, many indigent Americans are caught in a cycle of continuous encounters with the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

The Brennan Center founded the Community Oriented Defender (COD) Network to support defenders and their allies who seek more effective ways to carry out the defense function. Our goal is to enable defense counsel to engage community based institutions in order to reduce unnecessary contact between individuals and the criminal justice system.

Through national convenings, newsletters, informational forums and targeted reform projects, the COD Network pulls together innovative defender programs and helps replicate best practices and reform strategies. Begun as a small coalition of defender programs in 2003, the COD Network today includes over 50 defender programs. The COD vision of engagement with community based institutions has a proven track record, and although the challenges remain real, the COD model is gaining influence.

The Brennan Center, in partnership with leaders of the COD movement, developed the Ten Principles of Community Oriented Defense. These distill the three overarching advocacy strategies of the movement—whole client representation, community engagement, systemic reform—into ten concrete goals. We have provided a blueprint defender programs can use to reduce unnecessary contact between individuals and the criminal justice system, strengthen defender programs and improve policies that affect client communities.

In this report, we present each of the COD Ten Principles in the context of profiles of defender programs that are putting the various Principles into action. Those cited are but a few of the many defender programs incorporating the COD Ten Principles today and represent just some of the many creative ways we hope defender programs will begin to integrate these Principles into their own work.

Principle 1: Create a Client-Centered Practice

We aspire to employ a diverse group of attorneys, investigators, social workers and other advocates who respect their clients’ wishes and goals, and work together to ensure that the dignity of every client is honored.

The Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (NDS) organized DefensaNDS, a team of all-Spanish-speaking advocates, to deliver effec­tive representation to the program’s burgeon­ing Spanish-speaking client population.

Principle 2: Meet Clients’ Needs

We seek to promote the life success of every client by: identifying educational gaps, mental health issues, addiction, and other needs, and linking clients with resources, opportunities, and services to meet those needs.

Through its Defender Community Advocacy Pro­gram (DCAP), the Rhode Island Office of the Public Defender helps clients with addiction and mental health problems by sending a social worker to arraignment (along with the attorney) to identify treatment needs and to advocate for care. The result: healthier clients, better case out­comes and more productive relationships with judges and prosecutors.

Principle 3: Partner with the Community

We seek to maintain a local presence in the commu­nities we serve and to form relationships with com­munity members, community based organizations, and community institutions (e.g., courts, schools, government, health care providers and employers) to improve case and life outcomes for clients and to strengthen families and communities.

The BMAGIC and Mo’ MAGIC programs of the San Francisco Public Defender’s office address the root causes of youth contact with the criminal justice system by partnering with community organizations to deliver enhanced services for at-risk youth. These programs have a permanent, visible presence in the communities they serve, and they have enabled the Public Defender’s of­fice to expand its role in the community from courtroom advocate to fully-engaged commu­nity partner.

Principle 4: Fix Systemic Problems

We aspire to change policies that harm clients, families and communities (e.g., policing prac­tices that produce racial and ethnic disparities in arrest rates).

The Racial Disparity Project of The Defend­er Association in Washington operates the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program (LEAD), a pre-booking diversion program, based in the community, that steers individu­als accused of low-level drug crimes out of the criminal justice system and into treatment, re­ducing the number of minority youth caught up in the system.

Principle 5: Educate the Public

We seek to describe the human impact of the crimi­nal justice system to policymakers, journalists, and others so that the public can better appreciate the cost to individuals, communities, and the nation of “tough on crime” policies.

The Louisiana Justice Coalition engages in sus­tained public education campaigns that have contributed to a comprehensive overhaul of Lou­isiana’s indigent defense system and continuing improvements to the delivery of indigent defense services in the state.

Principle 6: Collaborate

We aim to create partnerships with likely and unlikely allies, including prosecutors, victims, faith-based organizations, and national and state based legal aid organizations to share ideas, promote change, and support mutual efforts.

Los Angeles’ Homeless Alternatives to Living on the Street program, also known as the HALO program, is a multi-pronged, collaborative effort between the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office and the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Of­fice aimed at diverting non-violent homeless or near-homeless individuals with mental illness or addiction from jail and into treatment programs.

Principle 7: Address Civil Legal Needs

We seek to promote access to civil legal services to resolve clients’ legal concerns in such areas as housing, immigration, family court, and pub­lic benefits, occasioned by involvement with the criminal justice system.

Cognizant that “collateral consequences” flowing from a criminal conviction can be as severe (if not more severe) than a prison sen­tence, and aware that they can lead clients into a cycle of involvement with the criminal justice system, The Bronx Defenders has estab­lished a Civil Action Practice, providing legal representation to resolve a broad range of cli­ents’ civil legal problems.

Principle 8: Pursue a Multidisciplinary Approach

We aspire to engage not only lawyers, but also social workers, counselors, medical practitioners, investigators and others to address the needs of clients, their families and communities.

With delinquency attorneys, education attor­neys, social service advocates, a psychologist and a community liaison, the Youth Advocacy Department (YAD), in Massachusetts, relies on a team approach to get young clients not just “problem-free outcomes,” but positive de­velopmental outcomes and the achievement of real world goals.

Principle 9: Seek Necessary Support

We seek essential funding, professionally ap­proved workload limits, and other resources and structures sufficient to enable the COD model to succeed.

The North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services’ (IDS) Systems Evaluation Project—a data-driven performance measurement sys­tem—will enable IDS to gauge the quality and cost-effectiveness of its services. IDS can rely on the data to make the case for greater support for programs that continue to prove their worth.

Principle 10: Engage with Fellow COD Members

We are dedicated to sharing ideas, research and models to help advance the COD movement lo­cally and nationally in order to maximize its benefits for clients, families and communities.

Being an engaged member of the Community Oriented Defender Network means devel­oping and sharing creative problem-solving strategies for breaking the cycle of arrest and incarceration that have turned courthouse en­trances into revolving doors. There are myriad possibilities for engagement.


About the Authors

Melanca Clark was Counsel in the Justice Program and Director of the Community Oriented Defender Network when she conducted her work on this report. Ms. Clark, a former John J. Gibbons Fellow in Public Interest and Constitutional Law and a Skadden Fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, also was an associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind and Garrison and clerked for Judge Joseph A. Greenway, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. She received her J.D. from Harvard Law School, and her B.A. from Brown University.

Emily Savner is a Research Associate in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. Ms. Savner assists the Access to Justice Project in its efforts to improve the quality and availability of legal services throughout the United States and protect the rights of non-profit organizations working with low-income communities. Ms. Savner received her B.A. from New York University in 2008.