Social Work in Public Defense

The Problem: More than three out of every four individuals released from the U.S. prison system are re-arrested within five years, suggesting that the system is not doing enough to change the lives of the individuals it processes. With the negative effects of involvement in the criminal system, concerns for community safety and security, and the crushing costs of incarceration for governments and taxpayers, these issues have far-reaching impacts.

April 12, 2019

Social Work in Public Defense

Current Solutions

The holistic defense movement has developed over the past two decades as an auspicious alternative to the traditional system. Rather than focusing solely on criminal representation and courtroom advocacy, the holistic defense approach seeks to recognize the broader social problems that underpin criminal behavior by addressing clients’ underlying needs in addition to their criminal defense. The types of problems that many public defense clients face–such as drug addiction, poverty, and homelessness–cannot be adequately addressed by a lawyer alone. Thus, engaging social workers within the public defense setting has been one important aspect of the holistic model.

Despite growing interest, the use of social workers within public defender offices remains atypical and only available as limited resources allow. Indeed, resources available to assist the indigent with their criminal defenses are limited, often severely. Therefore, it is important to determine whether and under what circumstances the costs of social worker involvement in criminal defense produce commensurate benefits, or whether resources should be allocated to alternative forms of services or simply to hiring more lawyers.

The Study

Working with Sarah Buchanan, Director of Social Services at the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office and others, the A2J Lab has designed a four-site randomized evaluation that is taking place in multiple jurisdictions in Tennessee. The RCT investigates whether outcomes with a social worker as part of the criminal defense team are different from those where defendants are invited to take advantage of social workers in their communities.

Participants will be randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the treated group, the clients will be assigned a social worker from the public defender office. The social worker will work directly with the lawyers and the clients to provide or arrange for social services. In the control group, the clients will receive a pamphlet listing community social workers and services who provide equivalent services. The research team will then track outcomes over a multi-year period.

The study will demonstrate how effective incorporating a social worker into the criminal defense team is at decreasing recidivism as well as housing insecurity, unemployment, and other risk factors for future criminal behavior.

The Research Team

Jim Greiner, Faculty Director, Access to Justice Lab; Professor of Law at Harvard Law School
April Faith-Slaker, Associate Director of Research Innovations, Access to Justice Lab
Sarah Buchanan, Director of Social Services at the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office