Three years ago I went to a Saints game on Halloween (70,000 of us set the Guinness Record for largest costume party that night) and the game’s climax occurred when the Saints’ defense successfully stopped four attempts to score from less than 10 yards in the remaining minutes of the game. It was an impressive defensive stand and inside that quivering dome, I too was screaming my head off. But for all that effort in that achievement, the Saints could well have still been down by 6 and without an offensive plan, the effort would have ultimately been for naught.

One of my justice heroes, Luceia LeDoux, dropped the phrase ‘playing offense on defense’ into conversation last week and it’s been echoing in my head ever since. Public defenders spend a lot of time on defense; they spend a lot of time reacting; they represent (both figuratively and literally) the underdogs and value hustle over glory; they get ambushed in the media sometimes; and, sure, they know that the pace of progress is often slower than continental drift. But isn’t there the opportunity to play a little offense too? As I am growing old in the justice movement in Louisiana, I am also growing impatient (and hoping I can accelerate the pace of change).

Inevitably, public defenders know that many times, even when they win in court, their client still loses in life.

‘Playing offense on defense’ is what a multi-disciplinary defense practice allows us to do; a remedy for the soul-crushing reality above. So many clients come to our doors because every other underfunded, overwhelmed service agency that could/should/would have intervened for whatever reason, didn’t. The folks that need these services the most almost always have the least access to them. Increasingly, the most stable social service programs are nestled within healthy Corrections’ budgets, setting up a fatally flawed liberty-for-social-services trade that should enrage everyone from the least empowered community member to the top of the policy-making food chain.

So, let’s play offense. What could we achieve if we could conduct meaningful biosocial histories for our clients, identify unmet social service needs, facilitate their access to services, humanize them to the court and the public, and empower our clients as partners in the justice process? Many defenders recognize the obvious benefit of a multi-disciplinary practice, yet here in Louisiana, only one of our district offices has an in-house social worker.   By the sheer numbers, most are dangerously understaffed on investigators. Workload is excessive, sometimes absurd. The idea of delivering more holistic defense services prompts laughter masking dismay. That reality seems so far away, but there's momentum to change it.

One thing is for sure, public defenders have to create that change. Walt Sanchez, another Louisiana defense champion, says, “Public defenders are like elephants tied with string.” Break free! Maintaining the status quo for public defense delivery is the box somebody else (and you know who) wants to put us in; ‘Playing offense on defense’ is what our clients need us to do.

John Wesley Pilinski is a story for the concept. He arrived in the Caddo Parish Jail in Shreveport when the organization I worked for, the Louisiana Justice Coalition, was doing an extralegal needs assessment of 100 pre-trial, public defender-appointed prisoners. It was his 53rd arrest. All told, he’d spent nearly 20 years in prison, much of it pre-trial. Mr. Pilinski was a struggling drug addict. It appeared that he had never committed a crime of violence, and the vast majority of his charges were thefts less than $300, to support his drug habit. He had been in and out (but mostly in) of the justice system for more than half his life. He said he had never hired private counsel. After 53 arrests for a well-established pattern of behavior, Mr. Pilinski had never been offered drug treatment, and there is no evidence that anyone in the system ever even considered exploring the idea. Ultimately, on the charge that brought him in on the day that I met him, he was sentenced to life in prison as a habitual offender.

‘Playing offense on defense’ means building non-attorney capacity. It means reorganizing a “court-centered” office to a “client-centered” office. It means considering a social worker an “essential” rather than an “extra.” It means broadening the talking points from individuals to whole communities. It means telling stories, and writing articles, and courting legislators.

The media had a field day with Mr. Pilinski and the Shreveport justice system. The door was open for a defender to articulate and promote a different defense model – one that would have served everyone better, and cost far less, but they weren’t suited up for offense yet. Without a doubt the opportunity will come again – it comes every day!! The path to better outcomes must include the achievement of risk reductions outside of court, which calls for a more holistic approach to the case against our clients.

Public defenders are the natural leaders on this – but it requires both a defensive stand and an offensive charge.