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Public Defenders in the Neighborhood: A Harlem Law Office Stresses Teamwork, Early Investigation

NCJ Number
Date Published
March 1997
12 pages
Publication Series
This paper describes the structure and operations of the Neighborhood Defender Service (N.D.S.) in Harlem, which places public defenders in the community.
Begun in 1990 by the Vera Institute of Justice, N.D.S. takes cases only from the surrounding vicinity, because it believes staff can acquire a deeper knowledge of clients and their problems than is possible in traditional public defender agencies. N.D.S. also offers clients help with personal and family problems that lead to legal trouble. Instead of working as individuals, N.D.S. lawyers, investigators, and clerical staff function as teams. Specially designed computer software allows any team member to update a case record, look up a case's current status, and display a repeat client's history. Benefits to N.D.S's approach are that lawyers and clients are more accessible to each other and to crime scenes; there is more contact with a client's family, friends, and neighbors during an investigation; and team representation enables use of a broad array of resources and guarantees continuity should an attorney leave N.D.S. or be unable to stay with a case. Aggressive, early investigations distinguish N.D.S. from traditional public defenders. About half of the clients retain N.D.S. attorneys before they are arraigned. Cases are given early attention so they can be investigated and analyzed thoroughly before a client's first court appearance, or so as to resolve the case before it goes to trial. Since it opened, N.D.S. has represented just over 5,000 clients and has established a positive presence in court and in the community. Currently, the staff totals 30, organized into three teams; each has a caseload of 180 to 200. N.D.S. costs are approximately $1,520 per case, a majority of which are felonies. According to a research study, N.D.S. clients were sentenced to a total of 78,153 days of incarceration, while their matched counterparts with traditional representation were sentenced to a total of 117,913 days. Savings realized in upstate prisons, however, did not affect the city budget that funded N.D.S.

Date Published: March 1, 1997