Whether the police admit it or not, their profession is on fire. They are more and more busy with jobs outside of their area of expertise, from domestic violence response to crisis de-escalation to mental health first aid. And more police spending did not pay the dividend reduced crime.
Police officers in the United States have also been found to be considerably more lethal than any other country, killing more than a thousand civilians last year. Police violence echoes other deeply American forms of inequity against blacks and browns. The additional harm caused by racial profiling, stops, racialized community surveillance and criminalization of children is difficult to quantify and exists on a near universal scale. Yet critics of reform on the right and left threaten Americans with escalating unrest if we dare to modernize our philosophy on public safety.
Their emotional appeals and biased data dots work, with the mainstream media that reproduce lies that efforts to defund the police sparked the crime spree we see reported across the country. In fact, we don’t have fund the policeand any increase in crime is more likely the result of intersecting unprecedented phenomena, including the mental health crisisa crumbling democracydeepening political polarizationat national scale school disruptionscrawling roaming and wealth inequality. Yet lies about reform are continually brandished by political opportunists as the sole reason for people’s unchecked embezzlement.
In New York City, where everyone lives in a constant state of pandemic-fueled whiplash, alarmists are treacherously warning people that Alvin Bragg, Manhattan’s new district attorney, will usher the city into an age of crime and corruption. chaos given his promise to seek jail or jail time only for the most serious crimes, unless the law says otherwise. As DA Bragg said repeatedly detailed in presenting its evidence-based policies, the data does not support these litanies of fear, but this doomsday outlook persists.
The good news is that even in this time of enormous uncertainty and division, there are still a few areas where we can find consensus. Wherever you come from or whatever your background, we all want safety, opportunity, economic mobility, freedom, joy and prosperity in our communities. After more than a decade of working in American criminal law, I know that public defenders can help make this vision our reality.
My career has spanned two states and over 2,000 clients. I have worked with the Los Angeles County Public Defender Office, the Santa Clara County Public Defender Office in California, and the Bronx Defenders in New York. I tried criminal cases, solved family and civil cases and obtained the release of people sentenced to life imprisonment. My experience has been varied, but helping systematically disenfranchised populations has always been central. To that end, I can say with confidence that public defenders occupy a particularly powerful position in our justice system.
“The time between arrest and the end of the trial is precious time when clients could be better,” says Tracie Olsen, chief public defender for Yolo County, California. “Public defenders are perfectly placed to help clients during this time, but only if we are properly funded.”
Located at the beginning of the legal process, public defenders have immediate and confidential access to those most likely to cause and be harmed. They are automatically assigned, eliminating barriers to entry that could separate a person in crisis from available services. And, unlike any other public safety resource, they have the power to create tailored solutions for their clients, using restorative means rather than imprisonment. From the jails actually make future crime more likely and cause immeasurable harm to those held there, this method of restoring opportunity rather than destroying potential seems both rational and effective.
“When clients are arrested, they often need help with more than just their legal needs. They need help getting medication, finding shelter, finding a mental health counselor, getting treatment for addiction issues, or getting around to court,” says Olsen. “When clients’ needs are met, they stop committing crimes and avoid jail. It’s that simple.
Through my tenure with the Bronx Defenders, a legendary organization that supports the whole of a client’s personality – their job, home, family, health, and unique human worth – I have always been able to work at- beyond the penal code as a lawyer. Defenders’ commitment to holistic defense has shown me that a good lawyer prevents incarceration, but a good lawyer gives people the tools to never be trapped by this system again.
My experience mirrors the research. A recent rigorous evaluation by the Harvard Law Review found that holistic defense reduces the likelihood of a jail or prison sentence by 16% and the expected length of sentence by 24%. Over the 10-year study period, holistic defense in the Bronx resulted in nearly 1.1 million fewer penalty days in a cage.
Collaborative forms of defense are a simple solution that should be a matter of public policy. But this can be difficult to implement for jurisdictions unaccustomed to mixing services within defense agencies.
In an effort to ensure that every person in America will one day have access to the type of wraparound defender we know saves money and creates better results, I left the job of try to start Partners for Justicea program to help every defender transform into a collaborative service centre.
By integrating specially trained attorneys into existing public defender offices, we close the revolving door between arrest and incarceration, eliminating the need to pay 150+ years in jail, with over 30,000 jail days cut from January to August 2021 only.
“When I came out, my mom and I were basically alone trying to figure out how to do social security, food stamps, etc.,” says Jason M., a client of Eliana Swerdlow, a lawyer for Partners for Justice. “[Eliana got] everything I needed, really. Health insurance, medication, even buying clothes and so on, guiding me through all the paperwork that would have taken me months. [Eliana] did it in one day. Partners for Justice has connected thousands of people to social services and achieved approximately 80% of our service goals, such as people’s access to health care, benefits or employment. “And it’s such a difference that all those things don’t weigh on me anymore,” adds Jason. ” It’s a new start. And then you have this team of people behind you, so you don’t want to let them down either.
I mention Jason M. to demonstrate how much our local governments could save if they chose to resource public defenders while they engage in the longer conversation about transforming other public safety agencies. In some communities, a single public defender has had to handle more than 19,000 crime cases per year. The overwhelming caseload means advocates are unable to provide non-legal help, as Eliana did for Jason – a lost opportunity to build trust and ensure the client is on the right path.
When asked how it feels to get services on parole, Jason describes this lack of trust: “You just hope [the parole officer] don’t throw yourself in jail, you know? But when you’re dealing with someone who isn’t in a strong position above you, but who encourages you and helps you,” he says of Eliana, “it takes your mind and places it in a positive zone rather than in your negative. , everything is against me, I don’t know what’s going on, I’m lost. He takes it and brings it to where I am now on an equal footing, and I feel confident because I trust this person.
At the macro level, our model at Partners for Justice makes economic and public safety sense. It can save taxpayers money through reduced prison use and gives people the tools and opportunities to thrive. It’s a public policy unicorn: a path to ending mass incarceration without negatively impacting public safety.
At the micro level, each of those thousands of people we serve is a human life whose course has been, we hope, transformed by our helping them access the tools they need to succeed: a woman who resorted to theft due to an ongoing housing crisis and her husband’s need for mental health care. A man about to lose his home because he couldn’t read an eviction notice. A young man whose mental health crisis could have resulted in jail time if a public defense attorney had not stepped in to create better options. Or Jason, who shared, “Normally when I go out I’m completely lost…It’s a tough climb just to get back to normal…When you have something like that to lean on, it’s is an incredible resource…. I’ve never experienced anything like it. When you get out of prison, you’re on your own, you know?
When every case is a human story, investing in public defense is more than just a smart budget choice.
As we seek a better, safer and more prosperous future, investing in those who are most ready to bring about tangible, transformative change now – our public defenders – is a good fit for all of us, regardless of our ideology.