Knox County Public Defender Community Law Office recognized nationally for model representation: holistic, client-centered, collaborative
The Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office (CLO) was awarded the prestigious 2019 American Bar Association Jefferson B. Fordham Law Office Accomplishment Award at the ABA Annual meeting in San Francisco, California on Friday August 9, 2019 for its holistic, client-centered, collaborative representation model which recognizes criminal behavior as symptomatic of those dynamic influences largely centered around poverty. The model contextualizes client behaviors and offers meaningful assistance to help clients succeed.
Accepting the Award in San Francisco on behalf of the Office, Eric Lutton, Deputy District Public Defender, said, “It is an honor to accept this award on behalf of the CLO. This is an exciting time for us in public defense as the CLO's holistic, client-centered model is recognized nationally as an effective blueprint for how public defender offices should represent clients.”
After operating from 1990 until 2003 under a 'traditional', 'lawyer-centric', representation model, the seeds for this new representation model were planted after District Public Defender Mark Stephens attended an Executive Session at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Surrounded by some of the best public defenders in the country, Stephens developed a deeper appreciation of the nexus between poverty and involvement in the criminal justice system. Poverty, homelessness, mental illness, addiction, and lack of support systems create barriers to client self-sufficiency and successful community reintegration. This reality prompted Stephens' search for a more comprehensive representation model.
In 2003, the holistic, client-centered representation model was adopted at the CLO. It is based on the tenets that:
1) while addressing the client's legal needs are paramount, risk factors such as poverty, addiction, and mental health issues must be addressed as well;
2) relationships with clients are collaborative. The lawyer, social worker, and client, identify strengths and mutually agree on a strategic approach to the client's case and personal needs.
3) legal services, social services, and community resources are integrated into the client experience.
This representation model seeks justice for the whole client, working to reduce recidivism and helping the client develop the capacity to get out of the criminal justice system and be a productive member of the community. The CLO model reflects an ecological perspective, recognizing the interaction of legal representation, individual conditions, socio-economic structure and environmental circumstances.
Reflecting on the significance of the CLO's model, Mark Stephens said, "no one in the criminal justice system has a better relationship with the client than the public defender. The holistic, client-centered model provides the greatest opportunity for meaningful behavioral change. Offices that persist with a lawyer-centric model are missing an opportunity to empower clients."
The Knoxville public defender office employs 27 attorneys and 7 social workers. It represents over 7,500 people a year. Social workers collaborated with over 1,500 of those clients.
In presenting the award on behalf of the State and Local Government Section at the 2019 ABA Annual Meeting, Ed Monahan, former Kentucky Chief Defender, spoke of the significance of this way of helping clients not only for the clients but also for the lawyers, social workers and investigators who provide the collaborative representation. As Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy (2015), has observed, “One of the most important advances in criminal defense work over the last 40 years has been the evolution of skills, tactics, techniques to contextualize criminal behavior through mitigation narratives.” Bryan sees that this method of representation has likewise “provided lawyers with an important way to think about their clients and the lives of the poor and marginalized who are so overrepresented in our system.”
The Jefferson Fordham awards program was established to recognize and honor the accomplishments of practitioners and institutions active in the varied areas of practice associated with state and local government law. The Award is given by the ABA State and Local Government Section, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/state_local_government/