Holistic Defense's Importance

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Release Date: 
Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Read on to see how Aidan, serving in Santa Barbara, California, has learned how holistic defense matters to clients and public defender staff.


For those working in indigent defense – or criminal defense of any kind – “holistic defense” is a frequent goal and popular buzzword. But what does it mean? What does it look like for attorneys and their clients for each case to be handled “holistically,” and what is missing from conventional indigent defense?


At its essence, holistic defense focuses less on the particular charges or case details and more on the client: Who are they? What resources do they have in and out of custody? And how can the public defender best meet their needs, even if those needs are not explicitly related to the law?


To address those added nuances, holistic defense requires lots of behind-the-scenes expertise from mental health professionals, housing advocates, social workers, and substance and sobriety counselors, among many others. Though they may not be attorneys, these team members – in the Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office, the holistic defense team is known as the Community Defender Division (CDD) – focus their efforts on clients’ safety, addiction recovery, shelter, and food security, often with transformative results.


Conventional public defense, by contrast, would provide legal counsel to indigent clients, helping them decide how to plead, representing them in court and working to get them acquitted or given as moderate a sentence as possible. And that’s how most indigent defendants have been represented since the inception of modern public defense following the Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963).


The challenge with traditional public defense, however, is its limited scope. Many court instructions presume that every client can easily comply so long as they want to, failing to consider factors like clients’ access to shelter, food, mental health care, etc. And if attorneys neglect the hardships clients face outside the courtroom, then the Sixth Amendment right to state-provided representation and an impartial trial becomes increasingly hollow and superficial – an equal administration of justice in name only.


That’s what makes holistic defense such an integral part of robust public defense: It helps clients access the fundamental social services they need to be healthy and stable irrespective of their conviction, connecting them with avenues for treatment, employment, or housing security that can help interrupt the cycle of recidivism. For instance, Santa Barbara’s CDD helps place clients in shelters around the county and beyond, ensuring clients without a safe place to live get beds and meals.


In general, the resources clients access are temporary, and demand frequently exceeds supply for capacity in shelters and patient beds in sobering centers. Many clients are also in custody, where conditions for those being held before their arraignment or trial can be abysmal, from the acute risk of contracting COVID

to a shortage of beds to unsanitary facilities to frequent use of solitary confinement. Such conditions – and, across the country, accompanying allegations of abuse and misconduct by staff – mean that clients are also often best served when they can be diverted from incarceration, another common priority for holistic defense.


Like many public defenders, the Santa Barbara Public Defender’s Office has advocated vigorously in recent years for zero-bail release and electronic monitoring as alternatives to jailing clients, along with a litany of other diversion initiatives aiming to achieve a more rehabilitative justice system where incarceration is not the only available recourse. While these diversion initiatives are largely in their infancy, they represent a watershed realignment of the work and priorities of public defense and justice for the most vulnerable.