People who seek out criminal lawyers are human beings, in all their vast complexity. An important part of our jobs as lawyers is to reveal the full person to the court: their prior conduct, the quality of their relationships, their health and addiction issues, and their prospects for the future. If a case cannot be won at trial, then these factors make all the difference in obtaining a fair sentence at the end of the day. We have always known from our day-to-day practice that presenting the person to the court, looking beyond the crime, beyond the past, and toward the future, makes a huge difference in avoiding prison or getting a short, just sentence. Now, there is a study showing just that.
This morning the Rand Corporation and the University of Pennsylvania Law School released a study to be published in the Harvard Law Review analyzing a mountain of data tailor-made to compare the holistic approach with an approach that has less resources to present the whole person to the court. Researchers looked at clients of the Bronx Defenders and the Legal Aid Society facing charges in the Bronx over a ten-year period. The two law offices pretty much split the clients between them based on rotating shifts in court. Each office represented about half of 587,000 cases that were looked at. The two organizations’ approaches were a bit different though, with Bronx Defenders offering more “holistic” services, with lawyers leading teams that could include social workers, housing advocates, investigators and other specialists to address the client’s “wider needs.” Legal Aid put more emphasis on the traditional role of criminal defense lawyers. The study — which should not be seen to pit the two approaches against one another — concluded that “the holistic approach reduced the likelihood of a prison sentence by 16 percent, and actual prison sentence length by 24 percent.” In drug and larceny cases, the effects on sentences were even greater, 63 and 72 percent respectively.
However, Legal Aid noted in press reports that the data came from the “broken windows” era of policing in New York City when arrest rates for low-level misdemeanors were historically high and caseloads, especially for Legal Aid citywide, were crushing. Since then, arrests are down and caseloads for defender organizations have been capped. Both organizations are asked to defend clients under the most difficult imaginable circumstances with exceedingly limited resources, and rely on the public-spirited devotion of smart, hard-working — and underpaid — attorneys to, in most cases, achieve just outcomes for their clients.