The Missouri Public Defender System is using an approach that is designed to prevent poor people from committing crimes and ending up in jail. The system’s Holistic Defense Services started in April 2022.
Annie Legomsky, Holistic Defense Services Leader, said the services are being used because she said the criminal legal system is not working.
“The criminal legal system doesn’t afford us to address the issues that brought our clients into the legal system in the first place if all we do is focus on the immediate arguments in the courtroom,” she said.
The program helps clients with access to affordable housing, jobs, personal documents, government benefits, transportation, and mental health or substance disorder treatment.
“The goal of that is that by working on these needs – things like housing needs, mental health needs, substance use treatment, we’re going to be better able to do a good job for our clients as well as protect their communities and public safety,” Legomsky said.
The team focused on this work is a collaboration between attorneys and social workers.
“We have this built-in trusting relationship with our clients,” she said. “And we’re not dangling any sticks over their heads. So, you know, there are carrots and their sticks out there. And when treatment is ordered by a court, sometimes people do it because they have to. But when our clients work with us, they’re doing it because they really want it and they’re not doing it because they’re forced to. The research shows that that’s much more effective.”
Is the program working?
“We think it has an amazing impact on our clients in terms of making sure that those clients who are not a risk to the community are not being held in jail just because they don’t have a place to live or haven’t been connected to treatment yet. So, reducing pretrial incarceration,” she said. “And then the other measure we’re really looking at is also, what does this do to case outcomes. And with this program, we’re seeing more dismissals of cases that should be getting dismissed, as well as fewer prison sentences and more people getting to be safely in the community with their families.”
The program could also help to reduce the Missouri Public Defender System’s caseload.
This is our feel good moment,” said Legomsky. “And it came from our staff, from a Long Range Planning Committee formed over the course of a couple of years, where they told us over and over again, that they needed this kind of help. And so now they get to see this impact on clients’ lives. They get to have these feel good moments. They have permission to prioritize these needs, and it’s been a really positive breath of fresh air I think for everyone, and hopefully most importantly for our clients.”
She hopes the program will help in the long run with the stress level felt by public defenders experiencing large caseloads.
“I think this is going to help with that burnout feeling that a lot of public defenders feel because now they have someone they can turn to when a client is in crisis, and they don’t know what to do. They’re not hitting their head against the wall or feeling like they don’t have time to address these really important things. So, I think it’s definitely helping with stress levels. It reduces the amount of time that our attorneys are spending on things that they aren’t trained to do,” she said.
For this program, the Missouri Public Defender received grants from the Missouri Foundation for Health and several AmeriCorps organizations. One of the grants requires the evaluation of the program to determine the impact the services have on clients.
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