By Matthew Van Meter
The Bronx Defenders was born in 1997 from Robin Steinberg’s belief that the public-defender system was failing the poor people it represented. In principle, public defense is simple. The Miranda warning states, “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.” Most people cannot afford an attorney, so public defenders represent about 80 percent of criminal defendants (that number is even higher in the Bronx). Depending on where you live, your public defender might be an employee of the state or the county or, as in New York, a nonprofit organization that acts as a contractor. Whomever they work for, public defenders, like all criminal-defense attorneys, have one duty: to represent your interests as forcefully and effectively as possible in criminal court. Usually, this means trying to get charges dismissed or reduced, negotiating an advantageous deal with the prosecutor, or, in very rare instances, defending you in a trial.
The quality of the lawyering among public defenders in New York City is universally understood to be very high; that wasn’t Steinberg’s concern. She saw inadequacy built into the very structure of public defense. In the nineties, she noticed that more of the clients she was defending were being arrested for pettier crimes than when she started in the eighties, and the effects of their criminal cases reached into unexpected aspects of their lives. In addition to facing the usual fines or jail time, they were being deported, denied student loans, or evicted from public housing. Many of them lost food stamps and custody of their children, and had their licenses and certifications revoked.
Steinberg focused on representing clients not only in criminal court, but also in housing court, family court, and immigration court. She created new positions for non-lawyers as community organizers and informal advocates, who could help people navigate the bureaucratic processes they might face. Some practices she adopted from other public defenders, some she invented. By the early aughts, the Bronx Defenders was the closest thing to a gold standard in public defense. Steinberg fought to make her model, which she calls “holistic defense,” bigger and broader, helping to push bail-reform legislation in New York State. Lately, she has spent a growing portion of her time training other public defenders through the Center for Holistic Defense, which she founded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Among the dozen or so lawyers and policymakers I interviewed for this story, there was a general acknowledgement that the Bronx Defenders was “the best” or “one of the best.” Collette Tvedt, from the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, told me “they do [criminal defense] they way it should be done. There should be more like them.” A group of law professors wrote in 2015 that the Bronx Defenders is “a model of how New York can lead the way in addressing the national problem of access to justice.” And lawyers have voted with their feet: among law students who want to go into public defense, the Bronx Defenders is still one of the most sought-after offices in the country. Last year, more than a thousand people applied for just thirteen openings in the criminal-defense practice.
Picture: Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons