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Q&A

Bronx Defenders is Transforming How Public Defenders Serve Clients

The organization’s holistic defense model is achieving better outcomes for clients and saving the public money.

A man hands another man food for distribution.
Pantry boxes are distributed to Boys And Girls Club families at the Belmont Community Day Care Center in the Bronx Borough of New York City. Families in the Bronx face an array of challenges, such as child care or housing instability, that the Bronx Defenders try to address with a holistic approach to public defense. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Among public defender offices, Bronx Defenders exemplifies how a more respectful and encompassing approach to representing clients reaps substantial benefits for both the people it serves and the public at large. When a person enters the justice system, it can trigger a series of cascading problems, such as an arrest for a traffic violation that triggers deportation proceedings. The unique holistic defense model Bronx Defenders has developed understands that an array of issues can arise from a person’s involvement with the justice system, and they deploy social workers and non-lawyer advocates to address them.

Arnold Ventures sat down with Wesley Caines, chief of staff at Bronx Defenders, to discuss his organization’s work and how a holistic public defense model can potentially transform the criminal justice system itself. This interview is part of a series highlighting the important work being done by grantees within Arnold Venture’s recently launched public defense portfolio.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Arnold Ventures

Wesley, tell us about the work of Bronx Defenders.

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Wesley Caines

Bronx Defenders is a public defender office in Bronx County, New York State's poorest congressional district. Our model is a holistic one, which simply means that we have a bunch of professionals across different disciplines who engage in the life of our clients and community members to address the systems that intersect their lives.

We see the people who literally cannot afford to pay for a private attorney, people who don’t have the resources to navigate systems where if you don’t have proper representation, your life can be radically destabilized — sometimes for years, sometimes indefinitely.

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Arnold Ventures

Why is it important to adopt an interdisciplinary approach when working with your clients?

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Wesley Caines

There are many government systems that intersect the lives of poor, marginalized, and mostly Black and Brown people we serve. For example, someone may be fighting an eviction proceeding, but concurrently also fighting to keep their family together, because the Administration for Child Services threatened the removal of their child due to housing instability. One of the important reasons to have a holistic practice is that we're able to identify very quickly the likelihood that a person’s involvement with the criminal legal system will trigger some other system involvement. We’re able to start addressing proactively, and that can stave off another interaction that would further destabilize our client’s life.

I think that most public defender offices would embrace a holistic model if they had the resources to do so. I have spoken to peers and other public defender offices around the country who don't have a holistic model.

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Arnold Ventures

What kind of data out there supports your organization’s holistic approach?

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Wesley Caines

Several years ago, RAND Corporation did a study on the services we provide and compared Bronx Defender’s client outcomes with other legal aid services. It found that our model had saved people years of time behind bars and saved the city and state millions of dollars in money that would have been spent keeping them incarcerated. RAND really affirmed the many ways in which holistic defense had made the system more accountable, and in doing so had really, you know, saved people from some really devastating impacts of being engaged in the justice system.

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Arnold Ventures

What do you think are some of the misconceptions many people have about the ability of low-income people to access counsel?

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Wesley Caines

I think that most people automatically assume that when a poor person has any systems involvement, they automatically have representation where a lawyer is assigned to them. We mostly think of all the court systems as just one system, but that’s not the case. There's a constitutional right to have an attorney when you have a matter in criminal proceedings, but there is no corresponding constitutional right to have an immigration lawyer when you're facing deportation, or a housing court lawyer, or even a family court lawyer. It’s left to organizations like ours and other nonprofits to fill the gap. Even with our model serving 20,000 people per year, it's still a drop in the bucket compared to the overall need.

The larger misconception stems from how most people have not intersected these various systems. They might think the system is equitable and that if someone is involved in it, there must be a good reason why. I can tell you from experience, the reason people are there is almost always because they are not supported. We constantly find people criminalized for poverty offenses. We find people receiving judgments against them because they're in family court fighting to keep their families together. Maybe a 12-year-old was asked to watch a 6-year-old while mom went to the supermarket and someone reported children being left alone. For someone with means, having child care is not an issue. But for someone without support, these decisions are made based on a lack of resources.

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Arnold Ventures

Public defense doesn’t seem to be an issue at the center of most criminal justice reform conversations. Why do you think that is?

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Wesley Caines

Public defenders, who represent the vast majority of poor people in criminal proceedings, ought to be in the conversation around reform and, frankly, key players in the transformation of our criminal legal system. There are a few complicating factors. First, public defenders are often seen as part and parcel of the entire system. There's very little distinction between police, prosecutor, public defender, judges, jails, and prisons for a lot of people.

I think the fundamental reason public defenders are left out of the conversation is because the people we represent are left out of the larger public discourse around policies and resources. If the people we represent are invisible to the system, why would their representatives be included in a conversation? Our clients are invisible. They have things done to them. They're not engaged in deciding what happens to them, which is a very big distinction.

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Arnold Ventures

You have a model that works and a population you’re successfully serving. Where are you looking to improve how Bronx Defenders delivers its services?

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Wesley Caines

I think a current knowledge gap exists in the public understanding of how important it is to share resources and provide support for poor people. You know, we talk a lot about shrinking the system, but that happens by providing quality education, housing, and health care — by directing resources to poor communities. The fact that there’s this movement calling to defund police and reinvest in communities is indicative as to where we have chosen to direct resources for these communities. We’ve seen the defunding of things like lack libraries or after school activities for children, while at the same time police budgets have grown. And so, the resources that flow into the community are directed out of judgment instead of grace and support.

An area of expansion for us is becoming more closely aligned with the community we serve. That happens through, you know, various forms of community engagement, and we have a vigorous and growing portfolio of policy work. We have a lot of first-line experience that we are starting to leverage by organizing and standing with community to change the way the system operates in their lives. We're looking to grow and expand by helping the community to stand up for itself.

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