These principles were developed collaboratively by a group of members working to plan NAPD’s wellness-related training and support. They were approved by the NAPD Steering Committee at its meeting on February 18, 2021.

Working as a Public Defender can be extremely meaningful, rewarding, and exciting. It can also wear you down. Depression, anxiety and substance abuse plague this line of work. We put everything out there for our clients, many times to the detriment of our own mental, emotional and physical health. In the long run, this deprives our clients of the zealous advocacy we strive to provide.

For many, this work is much more than a job. It’s a calling, and we would prefer to keep “fighting the good fight” right up until the day we retire. But even for the most zealous defender, the weight of the work can reach a tipping point. The reality is that Public Defender agencies are plagued by high levels of turnover. Untenable caseload levels and little resources create burnout. Repeated exposure to the psychological suffering of clients causes compassion fatigue and secondary trauma. Systemic barriers inherent in the criminal legal system lead to moral injury.

Models of sustainability in Public Defense are in high demand. The need for policies and practices that promote wellness (individual, cultural, and systemic) is clear. Public Defense agencies are seeking solutions, and we have provided a set of principles that will hopefully act as a guide forward. Whether you have already been developing sustainability programs in your offices or if you are at the beginning stages of trying something new, we hope these principles will serve you well.

The 10 Principles for Creating Sustainability in Public Defense were developed by a group of Public Defenders from around the country brought together through NAPD. Representative of the Public Defender team mentality, our group includes attorneys, social workers/mitigation specialists, core support staff, and administrative leaders. We have been meeting virtually on a regular basis over the past year contemplating what wellness and sustainability look like in our work. The principles are the foundation upon which our future work with Public Defender communities will take place.

We hope to broaden your concept of well-being. It is not simply yoga or meditation at lunch time (although it is that too). In order to truly promote a healthy agency culture, an holistic approach is necessary. Agency policies and practices should reflect values of wellness and sustainability. We need buy-in from agency leadership. We acknowledge that an office wellness program will not eliminate systemic barriers such as excessive caseloads, lack of resources and insufficient compensation. These issues need to be addressed by our leadership, and staff needs to be aware that their leaders are advocating for change on their behalf. Until we are able to see those reforms, it is imperative that we simultaneously strive to improve our individual and collective health.

When we take care of ourselves and each other, our clients reap the benefits. As we build community resilience, we acquire the strength to collectively take on the systemic problems we face. An office of empowered, energetic Public Defenders is a force to be reckoned with. Time for self- and community-care isn’t time stolen from clients. It’s what allows us to be wholly present and diligent in their defense. We must prioritize our well-being. Our clients deserve it, and so do we.

You can read the principles HERE