Rhode Island Public Defender

Our mission is to provide high quality representation to our clients, fulfilling the governmental obligation of effective assistance of counsel, fundamental fairness and due process. Our goal is to provide client-centered advice, holistic representation and zealous advocacy. Our commitment is to treat our clients with dignity, compassion and fairness.
Mary S. McElroy, Public Defender

Holistic Representation

Holistic (hol-is-tik) representation is a client-centered, community-oriented approach to criminal defense that is currently emerging as an effective and critical solution to our broken criminal justice system. Spearheaded by such organizations as the Bronx Defenders and the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, holistic representation is based on the principle that defense lawyers and staff need to take an interdisciplinary approach—beyond the courtroom—to best represent clients and to address underlying issues affecting contact with the criminal justice system.

As the Center for Holistic Defense at the Bronx Defenders phrases it, holistic representation is the response to the need to “re-imagine our work in order to become true and lasting agents for change and transformation in the lives of our clients.”

In practice, holistic representation means many things. The following are a set of principles of community-oriented, holistic defense, identified by the Advisory group of the Community Oriented Defender (COD) Network at the Brennan Center. As you will see described on our website, the Rhode Island Public Defender is working to incorporate all of these principles into our own defense practice.

Ten Principles of Community Oriented Defense 

Developed by the Brennan Center in consultation with members of the Community Oriented Defender (COD) Network's Advisory group, the Ten Principles of Community Oriented Defense identifies the goals of participants in the COD Network.  We hope it will serve as a useful tool to inspire staff, educate the public, and build the capacity of the COD movement to make a difference for clients, families and communities.      


Members of the COD Network, recognizing that community oriented defense services may take many forms (reflecting local imperatives, unique office priorities, resource constraints, and other factors), embrace the following goals:

1.  Create a Client-Centered Practice - We aspire to employ a diverse group of attorneys, investigators, social workers and other advocates who respect their clients' wishes and goals, and who work together to ensure that the dignity of every client is honored.

2.  Meet Clients' Needs - We seek to promote the life success of every client by:  identifying educational gaps, mental health issues, addiction, and other needs, and linking clients with resources, opportunities, and services to meet those needs.

3.  Partner with the Community - We seek to maintain a local presence in the communities we serve, and to form relationships with community members, community based organizations, and community institutions (e.g., courts, schools, government, health care providers and employers) to improve case and life outcomes for clients and to strengthen families and communities.

4.  Fix Systemic Problems - We aspire to change policies that harm clients, families and communities (e.g., policing practices that produce racial and ethnic disparities in arrest rates).

5.  Educate the Public - We seek to describe the human impact of the criminal justice system to policymakers, journalists, and others so that the public can better appreciate the cost to individuals, communities, and the nation of "tough on crime" policies.

6.  Collaborate - We aim to create partnerships with likely and unlikely allies, including prosecutors, victims, faith-based organizations, and national and state based legal aid organizations to share ideas, promote change, and support mutual efforts.

7.  Address Civil Legal Needs - We seek to promote access to civil legal services to resolve clients' legal concerns in such areas as housing, immigration, family court, and public benefits, occasioned by involvement with the criminal justice system.

8.  Pursue a Multidisciplinary Approach - We aspire to engage not only lawyers but also social workers, counselors, medical practitioners, investigators and others to address the needs of clients, their families and communities.

9.  Seek Necessary Support - We seek essential funding, professionally approved workload limits, and other resources and structures sufficient to enable the COD model to succeed.

10.  Engage with Fellow COD Members - We are dedicated to sharing ideas, research and models to help advance the COD movement locally and nationally in order to maximize its benefits for clients, families and communities.

Resources on holistic and community-oriented defense:

The Center for Holistic Defense at the Bronx Defenders

Beyond Lawyering: How holistic representation makes for good policy, better lawyers, and more satisfied clients by Robin G. Steinberg, Executive Director, Bronx Defenders

Community Oriented Defense: Stronger Public Defenders by Melanca Clark and Emily Savner, Brennan Center for Justice

Can the 'Holistic Approach' Solve The Crisis in Public Defense? By Cara Tabachnick

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