Bronx Defenders Didn’t Invent Holistic Defense—We Did

Okay, I jest a little. I promise this won’t be a Boston v. New York thing. I’m actually a big fan of the way in which Bronx Defenders has integrated representation across criminal, housing, family, and other types of cases. Sometimes, however, I lament the notion that this is a “new” idea.

Before BxD, there was Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (“NDS”). Some may quibble over whether NDS fits into the same category as BxD but I think they share an important core: community-oriented defense.

And long before either organization came to be, a group of young ambitious lawyers in Boston created the Roxbury Defenders. A few months ago, Roderick Ireland, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, penned an article fondly reminiscing on his time working at the Roxbury Defenders. Reading his piece, I was struck by many of the features of community-oriented, holistic defense that the organization exhibited at its inception. The attorneys would hold regular know-your-rights meetings and even did a 1-hour radio show each week where local callers could seek answers to basic legal questions. Moreover, Roxbury Defenders recognized and implemented the importance of social services advocacy, drug treatment, prison outreach, and the like.

Things change over time. Roxbury Defenders still exists but now as a unit of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (“CPCS”). And yet the spirit and commitment to holistic defense is still going strong in our organization and I’m proud to be connected (even if indirectly) to that history.

Sometimes reading through the literature on public defense, you can get the impression that mixing civil and criminal legal services, doing community outreach, and going beyond narrow representation is a brand new invention. It truly is a great goal but there’s nothing new about it. It’s retro, baby. It’s retro.

-Zachary Cloud

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