Virginia public defenders adopting ‘holistic’ approach to combat recidivism

By: - June 20, 2019 11:20 pm

A police officer walks into the John Marshall Courthouse in downtown Richmond. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Alphonzo Miles has been in and out of Richmond’s criminal justice system for drug- and driving-related offenses several times in the past 20 years, and in each case he’s been represented by a public defender — an attorney paid by the state to provide legal representation to individuals who can’t afford a lawyer.

In the past, Miles, 40, said those lawyers didn’t put much effort into defending him in court. He felt like they were only going through the motions.

“They didn’t fight for me,” Miles said.

That changed when Tracy Paner became Richmond’s Public Defender two and a half years ago. Miles said after his most recent offense, a drug possession charge, he noticed his defenders were working harder.

For one, he says his attorney helped enroll him in drug treatment and rehabilitation programs, helped to get his driver’s license back, and have been sending him text messages to remind him of his upcoming court dates.

“I’ve never gotten that before with any of my court-appointed lawyers,” Miles said.

These measures are part of a recent push by some Virginia public defenders to practice “holistic defense” — a method of legal representation that goes beyond the role of a typical public defender by connecting clients with legal and social support services in an effort to reduce the likelihood that they’ll reoffend.

Public defenders in Richmond, Charlottesville, Staunton and Fairfax County have embraced holistic practices, and say they can curtail the odds of their clients ending up back in the system by linking them with resources to address underlying issues like substance abuse, mental illness, unemployment, housing instability or domestic problems that may have contributed to their clients’ initial contact with the criminal justice system.

“We want to do more for our clients than just address their needs with respect to criminal charges,” said David Johnson, executive director of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission. “You’re trying to cut down on the cycle of a client finishing their case and then coming back through the door.”

The Virginia Indigent Defense Commission oversees Virginia’s 25 public defender offices and four capital defender offices, and determines the allocation of state funds to each branch.

According to Johnson, all Virginia’s public defender offices are using holistic defense methods to varying degrees, but some have been more ambitious than others.

“It’s a really broad, big concept. Many of our offices, within their communities, have relationships with service providers that can help their clients,” Johnson said.

Public defenders in Staunton, Charlottesville and Fairfax County have taken the lead in moving toward holistic defense, and have developed ties with local social and criminal justice services providers who can help low-income defendants get back on their feet.

In Richmond, public defenders began shifting towards a holistic approach only in the past few years and changes in policy have been incremental given the office’s demanding yearly caseload and limited resources.

“We’re just putting our toe in,” said Paner, Richmond’s chief public defender.

Attorneys are working closely with the city’s social services and criminal justice providers, often operating alongside mental health, reentry and substance abuse counselors to get clients the help they need. Paner said that has resulted in better outcomes for defendants.

“There’s a method behind this. The old way was grinding people down,” Paner said.

In 2018, Richmond’s public defender office had 29 full-time attorneys and 8,884 cases, the largest number of cases of any office in the state.

Holistic defense has garnered support among public defenders nationwide as a means to improve outcomes for defendants and reduce recidivism but until recently, there was little research to show its merits.

A Harvard Law Review report published in 2019 found that holistic techniques used by The Bronx Defenders, a New York City-based public defender non-profit, resulted in less jail time for clients — nearly 1.1 million fewer days of custodial punishment over a 10-year period.  

In Richmond, a new nonprofit called The Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative is aiming to provide data driven, holistic defense practices to the City of Richmond, and to add to the growing body of research on holistic practices. The group was established in May 2019 by Tom Barbour, a former Richmond prosecutor, and Jerald Hess, who currently works as a public defender in Richmond.

“There’s no easy way to quantify any of this, which is part of the problem,” Hess said. “Part of what we hope to accomplish is to help build that dataset.”

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