Fault Lines
11 December 2017

Bronx Defenders Provide Holistic Defense Services In Tulsa, OK

January 19, 2017 (Fault Lines) — The Bronx Defenders, one the nation’s best indigent defense organizations, went way out into flyover country to establish a new office in Tulsa, OK, dedicated to helping mothers who are having trouble with the criminal justice system.

A “holistic” legal assistance program has come to north Tulsa, where women who are in the criminal justice system and who are pregnant and/or the primary caregivers of children can get help.

Still She Rises Tulsa, the first outpost of its kind outside of New York for an organization called The Bronx Defenders, opened for business Jan. 9 at 567 E. 36th St. North. Personnel from the law office spoke to its first prospective client, a woman in the Tulsa Jail, the same day.

[…]

“What we knew initially was that we wanted to create a holistic law defender law office that could represent women in the criminal justice system, recognizing that Oklahoma is the No. 1 state for incarceration for women,” [Bronx Defenders Executive Director Robin] Steinberg said.

“Holistic” is one of the those words that can (and often should) induce eye rolls. It conjures up visions of some Birkenstock-wearing, patchouli-smelling employee of Whole Foods trying to sell organic vegan yak’s-milk kombucha as part of a “holistic wellness paradigm” to some sap with more money than sense. But when applied to criminal defense, “holistic” defense services seek to address aspects of the defendant’s life that aren’t strictly related to the legal system. Things like social services, mental health treatment, or substance abuse counseling can make the difference between a good outcome and a bad one.

This is undoubtedly a good thing. As criminal defense attorneys, we focus on the legal aspects of a defendant’s case. This comes down to questions of strategy, such as “Can I get the evidence suppressed,” “Can I convince a jury to acquit,” or “Can I convince the judge to grant probation?” And as much as we like to talk about trial work, most criminal cases end in a plea bargain. Where holistic legal services can help is by intervening at the front end to ensure that if and when sentencing comes around, defendants can put their best foot forward and hopefully avoid being locked up.

Take Ethan Crouch, the so-called affluenza kid. True, he screwed up the plea bargain of a lifetime and ended up getting locked up anyway. But the reason he got that deal in the first place is because his lawyer was able to convince the judge that Crouch would get better treatment in the (very expensive) rehab facility in California that had been lined up for him, instead of the Texas juvenile justice system. Indigent defendants don’t usually have the same options; but even when they do, public defenders aren’t always equipped to find them.

When I was a PD, I had a low-functioning client who also had anger issues. Most of the time, he was a nice guy, but from time to time would simply blow up at staff or at other residents and threaten them. The prosecutor was willing to keep him on probation, provided we could find a secure residential facility that was equipped to handle him. The problem was, he had no money, no family, no insurance, and no guardian; and he had run through every group home in the area. To keep him out of prison, I had to:

  1. Find a facility that would take him;
  2. Find someone who would pay for his stay;
  3. Make the necessary legal arrangements (such as a guardianship) to look after his affairs;
  4. Find a way to get him there; and
  5. Resolve the criminal case.

Needless to say, I was only qualified (and allowed by law) to handle number 5, and that only after 1-4 had been taken care of. He needed a social worker, not a public defender. I called every state and federal agency I could think of, and none of them could help. The judge and the prosecutor were fairly sympathetic, but all that meant is that they let me continue the case for several months while I groped for a solution. The poor bastard waited in the county jail for over a year, and in the end he went to the Department of Corrections anyway.

It isn’t always that complicated. Child support defendants, for example, weren’t usually the contemptible deadbeats they are so often assumed to be. Usually they were guys who had lost their jobs in the recession and couldn’t make payments. What they needed was someone to go to family court and get their payment amount adjusted…and I wasn’t allowed to do that either, even if I’d had a clue on how to do it. Serial Driving While Revoked clients needed to go to the DMV and get their driving privileges restored…but that wasn’t a criminal matter.

So it’s no wonder that Tulsa’s PD office welcomes the help:

Chief Public Defender Rob Nigh said Steinberg and others from The Bronx Defenders previously trained Tulsa County’s public defenders on holistic defense techniques, which he said was “highly beneficial” for the staff. He said the presence of Still She Rises Tulsa helps fill a major need for Tulsa.

“We want people to have the most effective representation they can have, and the more lawyers you have working for people, the higher the quality of the representation,” Nigh said. “This is a group of very dedicated lawyers and very zealous advocates, and they’re going to do a great job for their clients. I think we’re going to have a relationship that’s going to be mutually beneficial, and I’m thrilled that they are here.”

The only problem with Still She Rises is that it can’t provide the same services for everyone. Baby steps.

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  • Brian Cowles
    19 January 2017 at 3:31 pm - Reply

    Well, as long as they don’t hire any holistic investigators…