Shelby County Public Defenders Begin Work with Bronx Defenders

Grant focuses on six month partnership to develop a model for client-centered lawyering

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New lobby of the Bronx Defenders that welcomes people in need of help with criminal and civil cases, as well as other social services and employment.

It was about this time of year more than 15 years ago, when a few attorneys, a social worker, an investigator, an office manager and a receptionist banded together in the Bronx. Their mission – –  change the way poor people receive criminal defense.  This small, dedicated group has since grown into an office of more than 200 people working to redefine public defense in their neighborhood.

But their influence has not ended in New York City. The Bronx Defenders are also answering a call to reform public defense across the country.  With funding from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Bronx Defenders have established the Center for Holistic Defense, a resource for public defender offices.  The Bronx model of holistic defense combines aggressive legal advocacy with other focused services meant to address underlying problems that can trap poor people in the criminal justice system.

Read more about the Bronx Defender’s model of holistic defense

Since 2010, the center has selected a handful of public defender offices to receive technical assistance and support as they develop their own holistic defense efforts.  The Law Offices of the Shelby County Public Defender was chosen as one of six offices for 2013.

Everyone who works at the Bronx Defenders is considered a "Client Advocate." Attorneys, social workers and other advocates work in an open floor space plan and are grouped together in multi-disciplinary teams.
Everyone who works at the Bronx Defenders is considered a “Client Advocate.” Attorneys, social workers and other advocates work in an open floor space plan and are grouped together in multi-disciplinary teams.

The first step in the technical assistance was to bring a small group of public defenders and office staff to the Bronx to see the justice campus and defense model, first hand.  On July 23rd and 24th, we had a two-day introduction and began to plan our own client-centered projects.

Our hosts showed us how teams of criminal defense attorneys, social workers, investigators, team administrators and, specialty attorneys and family and community advocates work together to address the crush of criminal, civil and social service issues that often plague clients living in poverty.

The next step in the site visit involved a strategic session with the Center for Court Innovation. The Center is an independent research and development arm for the court system in New York City, as well as the state of New York.  As partners with the Bronx Defenders, the Center for Court Innovation works with public defender offices selected for the grant. Our time with the center was spent examining the challenges, strengths and opportunities facing our office as we work toward offering more client-centered defense in Shelby County.

The next six months of the grant will include a site visit to Memphis by the Bronx Defenders, during which they will see firsthand some of the challenges, strengths and opportunities we face in Shelby County, as we seek to provide more comprehensive services to our clients. The Bronx Defenders and the Center for Court Innovation will also provide feedback and a framework throughout the next six months as we build a small-scale model centered on more effective representation of our clients in their criminal cases… and beyond.

To learn more about how the Bronx Defenders improve the lives of poor people in their neighborhood, watch this report that aired on American Public Television’s Moyers & Company.

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