Public Defenders Can Do More

PFJ in the Washington Post

The article below was published in the Washington Post's True Crime section on July 23, 2021.

As a public defender, I never liked to say no. “Sure,” I’d say at the end of a long day in court, looking at a client’s child support paperwork or unemployment application, “let’s figure this out.” After all, I took an oath to zealously defend my clients, not simply their cases. I felt I had a duty to work on whatever they most valued — or feared — to the best of my ability. This way of fighting for equity and opportunity exceeded more traditional forms of defense so dramatically that I have now made it my life’s work to help other public defenders across the country similarly expand their service offerings.

After a decade fighting on behalf of low-income people, I find the capacity of our criminal legal system to do harm, especially to Black and Brown lives and futures, is inescapably clear. In a moment of national reckoning over how public safety resources and funding are allocated, it’s also inescapable that public defense is the single most underestimated public safety resource in our legal system. As American Rescue Plan funding begins to flow, local legislators concerned about public safety reflexively turn to police and prosecutors. Already, the Biden administration has said it will allow states to use ARP funding to hire more police officers. But if we really want to make a dent in rising crime rates, we should push support toward public defense.

People who return from prison come home dramatically less likely to succeed than their counterparts who have never been in the system. Time in confinement is seemingly designed to destroy mental health, and even a night or two in jail can do lasting harm. A missed shift at work can cause job loss, a missed school exam can make a student unable to graduate and a missed child custody hearing can separate a family.

But for police and prosecutors — often perceived as the engines of public safety — human caging is the primary tool in their tool kit. It’s difficult to conceive of how these agencies are supposed to create safety when their means are so violent and demonstrably unable to succeed. After all, if prisons and jails made people safer, America (the largest jailer in the world) would be the safest nation on the planet. And we’re not. Because our methods don’t work.

What does work, though, is the creation of opportunities. Jobs make people less likely to create harm. Even temporary opportunities have an impact, yet the criminal legal system seems built to undermine employability. Education similarly creates safety, with crime dropping as opportunity rises. Stability, it turns out, breeds success, and contrary to what a layperson might believe, public defenders are the legal system actors best positioned to create the kind of stability that actually makes people safer.

Imagine a young father struggling to access stable mental health care, who is arrested for stealing when his criminal record keeps him from landing a job that lets him support his family. Who can create more safety: The prosecutor who can lock this young man in a cage? Or the defender who can help him navigate mental health-care services, find the right meds, ensure he has benefits to afford them, petition to clear his rap sheet, work with him on his resume (and, if necessary, help him get his GED) and coordinate with local employment resources to provide him with satisfying work?

It takes a well-resourced defender to offer these services, but when defenders are given the capacity to do more, their position of trust and leverage in the system is powerful. They are not an opt-in resource — their use doesn’t depend on a person finding out about them or choosing to seek help. Instead, they are assigned, often automatically, to people who are at the highest risk in the community (as determined by their having been arrested). And they have a legally enshrined duty to help while maintaining confidentiality, allowing the trust-building required to create profound change.

Public defenders don’t have to build these capacities alone. Since I left trial lawyering, I’ve worked to help public defender agencies across the country add wraparound services in-house, creating unique new job opportunities in the process. My nonprofit, Partners for Justice, recruits and trains new professionals who typically carry identities and lived experiences that reflect our clients.

We embed these “Advocates” in public defender agencies that want to do more, giving overburdened attorneys the option of handing off these essential tasks to a brilliant, expert teammate. Advocates spend two years creating safety and opportunity in our host communities, and then launch toward becoming our next generation of diverse public service leaders. The results are substantial: Not only have we connected thousands of people with stabilizing resources and support, we’ve also reduced jail days for our clients by around 130 years.

Building public defender capacity doesn’t have to be a burden, but it does require resources, and across the country, defenders must fight for resources while police and prosecutors enjoy oversized budgets. For Partners for Justice, private philanthropy has been essential in allowing the defenders in our program to expand service offerings for their clients. Yet for this type of work to reach its potential, government must adopt and support the idea that defenders can and do create safety. When the government finally invests in the safety potential of public defense, I might be out of a job, but I’d welcome it, since it would mean our country had found better footing when it comes to how we respond to harm.

After all, most defenders don’t have the freedom to sit with their clients after court and figure out a benefits application. But when we as community members, voters and policymakers enable them to reach their greater potential, the impact for communities is transformative. As we consider how to move resources out of carceral ideas and toward more restorative solutions, local governments can do more for their communities by allocating funding to the individuals who truly represent “the people” — the defense.

See the original article at:

Make a Difference

What is the impact?

Learn more about the impact of Partners for Justice in communities across the country.

Learn More