Effective Assistance of Counsel Article 132 Harv. L. Rev. 819

The Effects of Holistic Defense on Criminal Justice Outcomes


Debates over mass incarceration emphasize policing, bail, and sentencing reform, but give little attention to indigent defense. This omission seems surprising, given that interactions with government-provided counsel critically shape the experience of the vast majority of criminal defendants. This neglect in part reflects our lack of evidence-based knowledge regarding indigent defense, making it difficult to identify effective reforms.

One approach that continues to gain support is holistic defense, in which public defenders work in interdisciplinary teams to address both the immediate case and the underlying life circumstances — such as drug addiction, mental illness, or family or housing instability — that contribute to client contact with the criminal justice system. Holistic defense contrasts with the traditional public defense model that emphasizes criminal representation and courtroom advocacy. Proponents contend holistic defense improves case outcomes and reduces recidivism by better addressing clients’ underlying needs, while critics argue that diverting resources and attention from criminal advocacy weakens results. Although the holistic approach is widely embraced, there is no systematic evidence demonstrating the relative merits of the holistic approach.

This Article offers the first large-scale, rigorous evaluation of the impact of holistic defense on criminal justice outcomes. In the Bronx, New York City, a holistic defense provider (the Bronx Defenders) and a traditional defender (the Legal Aid Society) operate side-by-side within the same court system, with case assignment determined quasi-randomly based on court shift timing. Using administrative data covering over half a million cases and a quasi-experimental research design, we estimate the causal effect of holistic defense on case outcomes and future offending. Holistic defense does not affect conviction rates, but it reduces the likelihood of a custodial sentence by 16% and expected sentence length by 24%. Over the ten-year study period, holistic defense in the Bronx resulted in nearly 1.1 million fewer days of custodial punishment. Holistic defense has neither a positive nor an adverse effect on criminal justice contacts one year postarraignment and beyond.

While holistic defense does not dramatically reduce recidivism, as some proponents have claimed, strengthening indigent defense apparently offers considerable potential to reduce incarceration without harming public safety. Accordingly, this promising model deserves future research — beyond the criminal justice system and in other jurisdictions — and a more prominent place in conversations about how to address mass incarceration.


* Senior Behavioral Scientist and Director, Justice Policy Program, RAND Corporation. This project was supported by Award No. 2013-IJ-CX-0027 of the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Pro-grams, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this research are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice or RAND. We are grateful for the support of the National Institute of Justice and the assistance of the Legal Aid Society, the Bronx Defenders, the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), and the New York State Office of Court Administration. We are also grateful for the thoughtful input from Kara Finck, John Hollway, Rebecca Widom, participants at the 2018 American Society of Criminology annual meeting, Andrew Davies, four anonymous reviewers, and the editors of the Harvard Law Review. Carolyn Cadoret provided invaluable data assistance. Data were provided by DCJS in the interest of information exchange. The opinions, findings, and conclusions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not those of DCJS. Neither New York State nor DCJS assumes liability for this Article’s contents or use thereof. Authors are listed alphabetically.

** Assistant Policy Analyst, RAND.

*** Senior Fellow, University of Pennsylvania Law School; Academic Director, Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice; Adjunct Economist, RAND.