April Faith-Slaker has been on the road this past week launching the Lab’s newest field operation. Working closely with a group of collaborators throughout Tennessee, April has over the past eight months co-developed and now launched an evaluation of the impact of a holistic defense approach that includes social workers on the public defense team.
Support for a holistic approach to public defense has been growing across the United States, grounded in the recognition that indigent clients have a wide range of pressing needs that go beyond the legal case. 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. Holistic defense implements a multidisciplinary approach to improve client outcomes and reduce recidivism by addressing contributing factors that keep people in or cycling through the criminal justice system.
The use of social workers has been integral to this approach, yet little to no rigorous studies have examined the effectiveness of social workers in this setting. Based on initial research completed by one of the study collaborators, Sarah Buchanan, Director of Social Services at the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office, the study design tests whether or not integrating social work services into the public defense team reduces recidivism and improves other outcomes for clients. April has been working closely with Sarah Buchanan to pick up where her initial research left off, by implementing a randomized control trial study of social work in public defense. In a recent correspondence between the A2J Lab and Buchanan, Buchanan stated:
“Social workers have been working toward the development of effective and socially just alternatives to incarceration for vulnerable populations in public defender systems across the country for many years without much guidance. Measuring the impact of social work services is critical as the social work profession continues to integrate into public defense settings and work toward addressing issues such as smart decarceration, economic inequality, equal opportunity and justice.”
In this RCT study, 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. Over time, the research team will track outcomes, including recidivism, to learn what impact the treatment has.
The randomized methodology will take place over the next year in four public defender offices in Tennessee – Knoxville, Franklin, Jackson, and Kingston. The latter three offices all integrated social workers in July 2018. Knoxville – the largest site – has had over a decade of experience with this holistic defense model, and their attorneys are extremely attuned to this client-centered approach. Therefore, in this site, the study will not only examine the effectiveness of the social workers, but will also examine the way in which the lawyers in the office make triage decisions regarding which clients receive a CLO social worker.
This study has the potential to provide significant information about the impact of social work services. The integration of social workers in this setting is growing, but by no means the norm in public defender offices. Most states have districts or offices that have added social workers, but at this time it is mostly on a limited scale. As other jurisdictions consider whether to adopt a holistic defense approach that incorporates social workers or broaden their programs, having empirical evidence about the impact of this program could help those jurisdictions make more informed decisions about how to design their programs.
The A2J Lab is very grateful to the whole research coalition for their participation in this landmark study. This type of project is a true team effort; we couldn’t do it without the hard work and commitment of everyone involved.
 See Steinberg, R. (2013). Heeding Gideon’s call in the twenty-first century: Holistic defense and the new public defense paradigm. Washington & Lee Law Review, 70, 961-1018