The Bronx Defenders

Changing the criminal justice system

By Momo Chang Jan 06, 2009

In the new courtroom drama Raising the Bar, the attorney played by Gloria Reuben pleads for her client to get drug treatment instead of jail time for his petty thefts—and the judge agrees.

The show actually mirrors reality. Reuben’s character and the show are based on the real-life drama of The Bronx Defenders, a self-described holistic public defense office located in the South Bronx. Founded in 1997, the nonprofit is a model for changing how poor people of color are treated in the criminal justice system.

Traditional public defenders focus primarily on the punitive outcomes of cases, but indigent clients face many consequences after being put through the criminal justice system. With criminal charges or a conviction record, people are at a higher risk of losing public housing, public assistance and employment and having their children placed into the child welfare system. These collateral consequences are largely invisible, says Robin Steinberg, founder and executive director of the organization, on whom Reuben’s character is based.

In other jurisdictions, public defenders send clients to separate offices to deal with immigration, housing and other issues. At The Bronx Defenders headquarters, clients meet with a group of immigration, family and criminal defense lawyers in the same room to come up with one strategy. Most poor clients are already up to their necks in government bureaucracy, so having a “one-stop shop” makes sense.

The Bronx Defenders serve about 14,500 clients a year, and most are criminal cases involving nonviolent drug offenses. In the last decade, though, they’ve seen a spike in immigration cases tied to criminal charges. “A barroom fight might send you into deportation proceedings,” Steinberg says.

New York City is unusual in contracting out public- defense services to independent organizations like
The Bronx Defenders, in contrast to other areas, where public defenders are part of a government agency. Other states and cities, though, have begun experimenting with holistic defense—Maryland is the most recent place to adopt an approach modeled after The Bronx Defenders.

The Bronx Defenders started with eight staff members and has grown to a multiracial staff of 115, including criminal and civil lawyers, social workers, parent advocates, community organizers, outreach workers and administrative staff. They aim to treat each client holistically and understand how people are impacted by multiple government systems. As one attorney puts it, “When someone has your back, you can really go places, and that’s a lot of what we try to do.”