An arrest is never just an arrest. Any arrest– even if it does not lead to a conviction– can throw an individual’s life into chaos by jeopardizing his employment, housing, immigration status, access to public benefits, and child custody.

These collateral consequences of criminal justice involvement last long beyond the resolution of cases in the criminal and family court systems and present significant obstacles to re-entry after incarceration. As the first advocates to meet with their clients at the start of criminal and family court proceedings, public defenders are uniquely positioned to intervene in the process that drives mass incarceration.

Our public defender system must offer a model of lawyering called “holistic defense.” As pioneered by The Bronx Defenders, this approach can play a crucial role in the effort to combat mass incarceration within a public health approach. The model provides advocacy within the criminal justice system and beyond, by offering follow-up services after incarceration to prevent re-arrest and re-incarceration.

This model of defense can help minimize the collateral consequences of incarceration. Even a brief incarceration can cause a life crisis– arrests and jail destabilize everyday life. In long-term cases, it can help clients overcome barriers to re-entry in their communities and to achieve stability with their families. Holistic defense offers a road forward in the movement to end mass incarceration.

About the author

Robin Steinberg

Robin Steinberg is the Founder and Executive Director of the Bronx Defenders. She is a leader and a pioneer in the field of indigent defense. A 1982 graduate of the New York University School of Law, Robin has been a public defender for her entire career.