I developed an interest in social work practice within public defense systems when I completed a year-long field placement at the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office (CLO) as an undergraduate social work student. I went on to other forensic field placements and have had other jobs, but I returned to public defense as soon as an opportunity arose because I find this setting to provide great potential for the social work profession to reengage with the criminal justice system and better serve a population with which we have long claimed allegiance. 

Unfortunately, social workers haven’t had much to say about practice within public defense systems. Common questions about ethics, roles, and practice standards in this setting have scarcely been addressed in the social work literature. It seems as if everyone believes the relationship should work – and it seems as if it’s working in most cases – but it’s important for social work to define roles and practice approaches in an effort to ensure effective and efficient practice.  The number of public defense systems that utilize social workers is unknown, but recent large-scale evaluations of holistic defense and the creation of state-wide social work programs indicate interest is growing. Given the commitment public defense has made to social work, it’s time to start thinking, talking and organizing in an effort to move forward as effective partners.  

As part of my work to evaluate social work practice within public defense and better understand the relationship, I created a timeline of literature and evaluations that include social work services.  There appears to have been a flurry of discussion and evaluation in the 1970s, but it waned until interest in various models of public defense (i.e., holistic, Mental Health Public Defender) began to grow in the early 2000s. NAPD members can see almost the full set of these materials (with the exception of some copyrighted academic work) on MyGideon. My list of articles and other resources has been provided in an effort to help others understand the evolution of the relationship and to start a conversation with others interested in this work. 

I welcome any input and am very interested in learning about other previous or ongoing projects/programs! Please contact me at sbuchanan@pdknox.org