After cycling in and out of jail for 27 years, as a result of poverty, homelessness, and heroin addiction, “Mr. A. Allen” is 15 months sober and focused on building a successful future. The turning point? When Allen was most recently arrested and accused, he could not afford a lawyer, and so became a client with the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD). An OPD attorney advocated to reduce the time he spent in jail, and an advocate from the Client Services Division supported him to get treatment, care, and temporary housing.

The sea change in Allen’s well-being is reflected in the Orleans Public Defenders office as well. The Client Services Division has helped the office develop a more holistic, client-centered, and community-oriented approach to public defense. Serve Louisiana corps members have played a pivotal role in developing the systems to support it.

The Crisis in Public Defense

Public Defenders offices at all levels, Orleans Public Defenders included, have experienced a systemic lack of support, underfunding, and lack of political independence, leading to systemically excessive caseloads. At the same time, four out of five defendants rely on public representation, lacking their own means to hire a lawyer. This means many clients across the country receive inadequate representation from overloaded public defenders, with 95% of criminal cases ending in plea bargaining.

“To be clear, public defenders are not the problem… The problem is that states refuse to adequately support and properly structure this critical function,” said Emma Andersson,Deputy Director, Criminal Law Reform Project at the ACLU.

The Crisis of Systemic Oppression

Movements for racial justice have raised public awareness of the disproportionate criminalization of Black and other racialized people. Black people are caught up in the US justice system at a rate of 4.8 times their white counterparts.

Most of OPD’s clients “are low income, poor, people of color, who have been overpoliced, marginalized, and underserved in any and every way you could imagine,” said OPD Communications Director and Deputy CAO Lindsey Hortenstein. “We see them at the culmination of so many systems failing them along the way from before birth to now,” she said, pointing to failures in the housing, education, health, addiction and substance abuse treatment, and mental health systems.

Community and social services try to meet folks’ needs, but without strong social safety nets or public investment, solving the multiple intersecting challenges, which are rooted in systemic oppression, is too immense for the resources at hand. And that’s all before someone gets caught in the criminal justice system.

OPD Client Services Division Deputy Supervisor, Max Lurye, who is also a former Serve Louisiana corps member, explained that any interaction with the criminal justice system ultimately leads to more trauma, harm, and challenges for their clients. Without timely interventions from OPD, the accused are often left in jail for three or four weeks, sometimes longer, before appearing before a judge for arraignment. Clients may remain in jail even longer if they plead not guilty. All this time in jail keeps defendants from working to meet their needs, such as getting an education, finding employment, securing housing, and getting treatment.

To succeed, OPD must address the multiple intersecting crises - poverty, addiction, criminalization, mass incarceration, and the crisis of inadequate public defense - where they intersect: a client’s life.

Holistic and Client-Centered Defense

The American Bar Association outlines best practices for public defense providers, including recommendations for “a client-centered approach to representation based around understanding a client's needs and working with them to achieve their goals.” This is a tall order for public defense systems fighting for adequate funding, political independence, and reasonable caseloads.

For OPD, this means doing whatever they can to keep someone out of jail and address whatever challenges and needs they have so they don’t end up back in the system. Hortenstein explained, “Our workers step in and say ‘Let’s step back. What is your story? What are your needs? How can we meet one of those acute needs? Food, shelter, medical care, etc. What are your secondary needs? Like longer term medical, health, mental health, housing, services, education.”

Partnering for Change

Over their years of partnership, Serve Louisiana Corps Members have helped OPD develop its Client Services Division. Corps members act as “client advocates,” building relationships with clients to support them in their broader life, while at the same time building internal systems to support the client-centered approach. This ultimately helps OPD demonstrate the impact and value of providing holistic support, and get buy-in from the city and other stakeholders for this approach.

For example, because clients can’t afford bond, they would normally sit waiting in jail until their arraignment for three or four weeks, sometimes longer. Corps members with OPD developed internal systems to do intake and assessment early with clients and work with them to create release plans. Judges accept these release plans in place of bonds, letting people out of jail so they can access the support they need while awaiting trial. “We’ve been able to address over detention and help people who should be out get out,” said Hortenstein. These systems have reduced the average time incarcerated by 14 days, allowing clients to remain in and contribute to their communities, while saving taxpayers $1 million.

“Because of the partnership with Serve Louisiana, we now have a bond advocacy team; we have a mental health unit; we have peer, youth, and parent advocates. Ten years ago this seemed not doable - an unrealistic goal.” —Lindsey Hortenstein, Communications Director and Deputy CAO, Orleans Public Defenders

Lurye has stuck around since his first year as a Serve Louisiana Corps member. He helped develop systems for tracking clients, including a needs assessment, client background, such as the issues they faced before arrest, as well as objectives and service goals. Ultimately, the partnership between Serve Louisiana and OPD has “created a foundation for our work [in Client Services],” he said, helping them demonstrate, systematize, and magnify their impact, in spite of the resistance to invest in client-centered public defense. Now as Client Services Division Deputy Supervisor, Lurye is helping the department “reimagine how they operate internally, access resources, and leverage community relationships to benefit clients.”

“We now have a bond advocacy team. We have a mental health unit. We have peer and youth and parent advocates,” said Hortenstein, attributing this diverse specialization within Client Services to the partnership with Serve Louisiana. “Ten years ago this seemed not doable - an unrealistic goal.”

Though these efforts have succeeded in keeping many community members out of jail, there’s more to do. After all, he said, “We are trying to prevent their entrance into the most harmful system of them all.”

By: David Ferris