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New study by Paul Heaton and RAND co-authors finds holistic defense effective in reducing mass incarceration

November 12, 2018

A groundbreaking new study by researchers at RAND and the University of Pennsylvania Law School finds that by adopting an innovative holistic approach to defending poor clients in criminal cases, jurisdictions can significantly reduce incarceration and save taxpayer dollars, without harming public safety.

The study, “The Effects of Holistic Defense on Criminal Justice Outcomes,” to be published in the Harvard Law Review, examined over half a million cases in the Bronx over a 10-year period involving poor criminal defendants who received court-appointed lawyers. The study was authored by James Anderson and Mary Buenaventura of RAND, and Paul Heaton, Academic Director of Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law.

Heaton and his co-authors compared holistic representation – wherein an interdisciplinary team that includes a lawyer working alongside other advocates such as a social worker, housing advocate, investigator, etc. addresses the wider needs of the client enmeshed in the criminal justice system – to the more traditional public defense model focused around criminal attorneys and criminal case advocacy. They found that the holistic approach reduced the likelihood of a prison sentence by 16 percent, and actual prison sentence length by 24 percent.

These impacts translated to big savings for taxpayers. Over the decade covered by the study, holistic representation of clients prevented more than one million days of incarceration, saving New York taxpayers an estimated $165 million. And despite an appreciably higher release rate, in a follow-up spanning up to ten years after case resolution, defendants who received holistic defense services were shown to commit no more crime than those incarcerated for longer periods. 

“Communities across the country are grappling with ways to address the problem of mass incarceration while preserving public safety.” said Heaton. “This study demonstrates that strengthening indigent defense deserves a prominent place in those conversations.”

The study by Heaton and co-authors is the first large-scale empirical evaluation of the impact of holistic representation on criminal justice outcomes. Holistic defense emerged in the 1990s and has many supporters and critics; yet until now there had been limited scientific evidence about how the model performs in real-world practice.

The authors studied two institutional providers of indigent defense in the Bronx, a New York City borough with an estimated 1.4 million residents as of 2017. The two legal aid organizations, the Bronx Defenders and the Legal Aid Society of New York, exist side-by-side within the same court system. The Bronx Defenders have been operating under a holistic defense model since their office’s inception in 1997, while Legal Aid has historically followed a more traditional model. Clients are allocated to the two defender associations through a rotating shift assignment system that created a natural experiment for the researchers, enabling them to rigorously capture the effects of the holistic defense approach.

An analysis of over half a million cases revealed that holistic defense did not affect conviction rates, but did appreciably increase the use of non-incarceration sentencing alternatives. Impacts were particularly large in drug and larceny cases, where holistic representation reduced custodial sentences by 63% and 72%, respectively. In the latter years of the study, as the Legal Aid Society also embraced a more interdisciplinary approach, outcomes across the two organizations converged. 

“No one doubts that we’d get better results by addressing circumstances such as homelessness, addiction, or mental illness that draw people into the criminal justice system, rather than simply locking people up. The hard question is how, as a practical matter, to accomplish that.” said Heaton. “The Bronx Defenders have developed a model that enables attorneys to better understand the unique challenges faced by each client and bring that into the adjudication process, and the research shows it is having a significant impact.”

Holistic defense has been adopted in numerous other communities, and the Bronx Defenders maintain a Center for Holistic Defense that assists other jurisdictions in implementing the model. However, how best to replicate the model to generate comparable impacts in other communities remains an important unresolved question. Holistic defense also carries the potential to improve outcomes not addressed in the study such as economic well-being, housing and family stability, and health, and the authors call for further research into these topics.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, and was conducted under the auspices of Penn Law’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice and RAND’s Justice Policy Program. The Quattrone Center is a nonpartisan, national research and policy hub producing and disseminating research designed to prevent errors in the criminal justice system.