Criminal Justice is a Community Issue
The Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office (CLO) was dedicated in May 2003, the same year that marked the 40th Anniversary of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. After operating the office in a traditional manner for over a decade, focusing solely on clients’ legal challenges, I began to recognize the need for significant assistance that would help clients address the issues that kept so many cycling through the criminal justice system.
The CLO addressed that need with a pioneering, comprehensive approach to the practice of indigent criminal defense, introducing a new model of institutional public defense to Tennessee that relies on holistic, client-centered representation as its guiding principle. While there isn’t a single definition of holistic representation, there is no question that it is much more than attorneys providing criminal defense and partnering with social services. The model recognizes the interaction of legal issues with individual and environmental circumstances—like poverty, homelessness, addiction, and lack of education, employment and support structures. The CLO’s unique combination of legal and social services, youth services, and educational and community outreach has evolved into a comprehensive approach that serves the needs of the particular East Tennessee community where we are located.
A significant part of the work of the CLO social services department is devoted to re-entry assistance for those who have been incarcerated. The CLO’s integrated representation model offers an effective means to address re-entry into the community through a continuum of care that engages the client, connects the client to community-based services and provides ongoing follow-up with legal and social work assistance. The CLO has been particularly successful in transitioning clients who have been excluded from service by other programs into stable community living.
The CLO took the lead in 2013 in developing a collaborative effort with the Knox County District Attorney’s Office. The resulting initiative, called the Homeless Veterans and Civilians Legal Assistance Initiative, seeks to address the legal barriers that result from involvement with the criminal justice system and prevent individuals from securing housing, employment and overall self-sufficiency. The program, which is conducted through quarterly meetings, aims to break the cycle of homelessness and incarceration—homelessness is often a risk factor for incarceration, and incarceration often leads to homelessness—by helping clients access and maintain housing. Program participants receive legal assistance with court costs and fines, record expungement and driver’s license reinstatement.
And the results are promising. A recent preliminary analysis by University of Tennessee Social Work student (and CLO intern), Shaun McComas, found that of 80 individuals whom the program has helped since its inception in January 2013, 79|PERCENT| received housing as a result of their participation in the program, and of those who were housed, 62|PERCENT| were not arrested at all following their participation in the program.
From a broader perspective, the implications of holistic re-entry work are significant. Providing justice-involved clients with comprehensive and coordinated assistance, with housing, employment, substance abuse and mental health treatment and other services focused on re-integration into the community, creates the greatest potential to reduce recidivism. A recent, HUD-financed re-entry project conducted by CLO Social Services focused on individuals who faced the most challenges to successful reintegration—3 or more arrests, a history of homelessness, mental illness or substance abuse, chronic unemployment, exhaustion of community resources, or a combination of these factors. Again, the preliminary results are quite promising. Of the 226 clients for whom 1-year, post-participation data is available, there was a 44|PERCENT| reduction in the number of arrests as compared to the year prior to participation in the re-entry project, and a 48|PERCENT| reduction in days incarcerated.
The tools to achieve justice for our clients and to combat the impacts of the system lie in the holistic approach, collaborative partnerships and outreach that are the hallmark of the community law office model. The essential collaboration between attorneys, social workers and community partners creates the best possible legal and life outcomes for our clients. And it creates the best possible outcomes for the community by increasing public safety and quality of life and reducing the costs of arrests, incarceration and public services. Recent history reminds us of something that public defenders have long known: criminal justice is a community issue, and it takes the whole community to fix it.