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The Effects of Holistic Defense on Criminal Justice Outcomes

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Date Published
James Anderson, Maya Buenaventura, Paul Heaton
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This article reports on the first rigorous, large-scale empirical evaluation of the holistic approach to defending indigent defendants in the criminal justice system, with attention to its influence on case outcomes.
According to its proponents, the distinctive feature of the holistic defense model is its attention to the debilitating factors in the defendant’ life that have impacted his/her mental, emotional, and behavioral development. The holistic defense model also addresses the particular adverse impact certain sentencing options could have on the defendant’s future development, such as loss of employment, separation from family, and other detrimental consequences of some punitive sentencing. The holistic defense model contrasts with the more limited defense focus on countering prosecution efforts to prove the defendant‘s guilt regarding the charged offense. The site for this study was the Bronx, New York, where the court provides for the Bronx Defenders, a cadre of holistic defenders, to work with traditional public defenders (the Legal Aid Society) in mounting defenses for indigent defendants. The study used administrative data that covered just over half a million cases over a 10 year period, so as to measure outcomes for cases with a holistic defense compared with those that received only the traditional legal aid defense. The study found that the use of holistic defenses did not affect conviction rates; however, it reduced the likelihood of a custodial sentence by 16 percent and expected sentence length by 24 percent compared with similar defendants who received a traditional defense. Holistic defenses did not dramatically reduce recidivism, as some proponents have claimed. Its impact on the number and length of custodial sentences, however, suggests that it should be considered in discussions about how to address mass incarceration. 13 tables, 5 figures, and 266 notes
Date Created: February 27, 2019