Originally published in the July 2018 Issue of The Champion
By Rick Jones
Earlier this year, news of New York’s falling crime rate gained national attention. Gone are the days of the late 1980s and early 1990s with their spiking murder rates and a war on drugs raging. By nearly any metric, crime in New York City is at a historic low. In 2016, shootings and major felonies were at the lowest rates since the statistics began. Motor vehicle theft has plunged by as much as 96 percent from 1990. Robbery and burglary are down across all five boroughs. This trend is noteworthy not just in relation to New York’s historic declines, but for the stark contrast they represent in comparison with other major U.S. cities: 16 of the 20 largest police departments saw homicides increase in 2016.
Credit for New York’s success has been parceled out among several contributors. Police Commissioner James O’Neill touted CompStat, the system that uses statistics to target policing. Another popular theory hypothesizes that the improvement is tied to the economy, creating a cycle of investment and falling crime. Mayor Bill de Blasio cites a policy of focusing on gangs and repeat offenders. Some have even linked falling crime to the elimination of lead in gasoline and paint.
Few, however, pause to credit the people that arguably have the most contact with both citizens and the criminal justice system: public defenders. Throughout my term as NACDL President, I have written about every stage of the justice system and the myriad problems demanding reform. From predictive policing and risk assessment instruments codifying and legitimizing disparities in law enforcement, to disproportionate charges and sentences being applied to people of color, there is much work to be done. Even so, much work has been done already. It has been done by the public defenders who stand between citizens and the full force of the government. The recent decline in New York City crime is as much a product of their service as it is of any policing reform or new technology. And with many of the innovations in public defense coming from the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (NDS), collaborative and holistic defense should be recognized for the contribution it is making.
We started NDS in 1990 with the client in mind: the whole client. Holistic defense assembles teams of lawyers by integrating practice areas and encouraging collaboration. A criminal defense attorney sits next to a family law attorney and across from an immigration attorney. When a client faces a criminal charge, his or her NDS attorney is trained to recognize the implications of the criminal case and refer the client to their immigration, family or housing coworker. The consequences of a conviction can extend far beyond the prison walls, making it difficult or impossible for someone with a record to obtain public assistance, subsidized housing or employment. Tragically, a criminal case can terminate parental rights, tearing a family apart. It can change a client’s immigration status. The team defense model at NDS insures that the best outcome for clients — in every part of their lives — is a priority.
What we do works. Taking a snapshot from one month in 2016, 29 clients were saved from eviction when their NDS criminal or family law attorney referred them to an NDS housing attorney. Our model works not just for our clients, but for the city as well. With average monthly housing assistance for a family of four living on the street costing just over $3,000 and a storage allowance of over $200, those 29 referrals saved New York City nearly $100,000 in one month alone. Not to mention the untold costs saved by keeping families together and intact.
Generally speaking, in the traditional model of a criminal justice system, every advantage rests with the state. Police use military-grade technology to target and surveil communities. Money bail traps poor citizens behind bars while they wait — sometimes years — for trial. Prosecutors wield full charging discretion and set the terms of plea deals. Even the most progressive courts rely on risk assessment tools that incorporate historic disparities in policing and convictions.
The NDS model seeks to balance the scales of justice. Instead of petitioning a judge to approve the funds to use an investigator, NDS employs several investigators full time. These fully integrated team members track down witnesses, find video recordings and provide context to an incident that does not rely on police reports. Importantly, this time-consuming work done by investigators happens in partnership with the attorneys, not in isolation.
Having investigators on staff contributes to NDS’s “early entry” model: engaging with a client and the case as soon as possible. In many counties around the country, rushed, assembly line procedures engender impersonal legal advice and unchallenged plea deals. Early in NDS’s history, we succeeded in establishing a presence in the police precinct. Our early entry model of meeting our clients as soon as possible translates into quicker access to evidence, witnesses and the start of our own investigations. Over time, trust within the community and repeatedly successful outcomes led to clients seeking our services before an arrest had even taken place, allowing us to weed out bad arrests, facilitate peaceful surrenders when necessary and focus on the best possible outcomes for clients.
This model has led to marked success in case dispositions. In 2016, the NDS rate for total cases disposed by dismissal or ACD exceeded 45 percent. Over time, our model has won political support. The NDS story is one not just of comprehensive public defense, but also one of fiscal responsibility. It costs New York City an average of $742 per day to house a single inmate. With an average pretrial length of stay of 54 days, keeping one client out of pretrial detention saves the city more than $40,000.
One of our greatest successes has been keeping families together. The NDS family defense practice is a model for the city. In 2017, the NDS team successfully reunited more than 100 families. One early NDS innovation was the inclusion of social workers within each of our defense teams. Confronting a legal system stacked against her can be intimidating enough for a client, but navigating the labyrinth of social services required to successfully move on after her case is resolved can be an impossible burden. NDS social workers are specialists, guiding clients to shelters, treatment services and family programs. And the team defense structure means that social workers and attorneys are each apprised of the needs of the client and progressing towards the best outcome together.
Other communities, other cities and indeed, other countries, have taken notice. NDS works together with defender organizations in New York City, frequently partnering on policy efforts that affect all our clients. Together, we have weighed in and influenced city and state conversations about factors in risk assessments, accessing police discipline records, problem-solving courts and the use of witness identification in court. NDS regularly opens its doors to leaders in other parts of the country seeking to adopt the holistic approach. Just as we share what we have learned at NDS with other organizations seeking to improve their public defender systems, we also work with international organizations to ensure that developing countries and emerging public defense systems do not repeat the mistakes and disparities that we see in the United States.
As I have written about throughout the past year, there are no shortages of problems in our justice system. And shortcomings in the criminal justice system have devastating consequences. Misguided marijuana policy based on racial animus has led to decades of overcriminalization and fractured communities. Misplaced reliance on money bail keeps poor people detained and upends their lives. Bias in policing attributes unwarranted threats to young Black men, leading to deadly consequences. Public defenders are well positioned to confront these problems and to advocate for policies that right the systemic wrongs. The drop in crime in New York City is, in part, a testament to our success. At the same time, public defenders must and will continue to vigorously represent clients who are the most vulnerable in this unjust system. None of these challenges are simple. Neither are the solutions. With the ability to impact every facet of a client’s life, no case is simple either. Holistic defense recognizes that this impact can extend beyond one single practice area. The NDS model seeks to address them all. At NDS, we work to level the playing field for our clients. In Harlem we call this the power of public defense.