Being poor in the United States today means that any contact with the criminal legal system immediately ripples beyond the courtroom. How will I afford bail? Will I lose my job? Will I be evicted? Where will my family live? Will I lose my children? It is both tragic and telling that these are often the first questions indigent clients ask. To effectively represent their clients, public defenders must combat the collateral consequences that stem from the justice system. They need holistic defense.
Neighborhood Defender Service’s multi-faceted approach to representation meets all of our clients’ needs. The innovative holistic model addresses the systematic discrimination that poor people face when they are accused of crimes and restores the balance of power to the accused. At NDS, clients not only get attorneys, they get a team consisting of investigators, social workers, advocates, interns and administrators working together to reach the best possible outcome.
Investigators step into a case immediately—sometimes before arrest—to independently establish facts. Attorneys identify the needs of their clients beyond the immediate criminal charges and seamlessly collaborate with team members. Social workers provide educational support, psychiatric and psychological referrals, drug treatment placements and potential alternatives to incarceration. Advocates help clients navigate the often-confusing web of social services a judge may require to avoid incarceration or regain custody of children. Thirty years ago, a client would have to see any number of attorneys across several offices to address the full scope of their case. But NDS changed the game with its holistic approach.
Investing in holistic defense is an investment in the community as a whole. Policymakers quickly recognized the positive impact of NDS. More people gaining pretrial release meant a dramatically lower pretrial detention bill footed by the city. In housing court, where 90% of the unrepresented are evicted, 90% of those with an attorney remain in their homes, saving the city daily shelter costs, relocation subsidies and storage fees. These are the very real, very tangible benefits that NDS brings to our clients and our communities. Recognizing the value of these services, the City of New York has consistently expanded NDS’s mandate over the past decade, increasing our budget from $2.5 million annually to over $13 million and our total level or representation from 2,000 families annually to over 10,000.
NDS has been a part of the Harlem community for nearly 30 years and opened a second office in Detroit in 2019, providing the same world-class service to the people of Wayne County. NDS Detroit is changing the game and leading the region in public defense. Together with Wayne County, we are thinking smarter about how defense can guarantee not only constitutional rights but also the social justice our society needs to thrive.
In each of our integrated practice areas, what we do works. In family defense, NDS is the largest provider in Manhattan. Being arrested and brought to criminal court can often lead to serious, unjust repercussions in a client’s family structure and daily life. The effects of contact with the criminal or family justice system do not end with the successful conclusion of a case, however. Eviction, asset forfeiture, loss of employment and revocation of public benefits are all ongoing risks. At NDS, a client has a team that stays with them. Through aftercare services, NDS addresses the very issues that brought clients into contact with the legal system, working to ensure they do not return. These services include building job readiness skills, securing a GED, anger management training, substance abuse counseling, housing and food stamp assistance, healthcare and mental health treatment.
Holistic defense leverages funding for criminal defense and makes a suite of civil services available to clients. By addressing the underlying social needs that clients bring with them, by representing them in collateral civil matters and by not turning our backs on them once their cases are closed, NDS consistently obtains lasting outcomes for clients. What we do works.
To donate by mail, please send checks (payable to "Neighborhood Defender Service") or money orders to:
Neighborhood Defender Service
317 Lenox Avenue
New York, NY 10027
To make a donation over the phone, please call 212-876-5500.