The Effects of Holistic Defense on Criminal Justice Outcomes

75 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2018 Last revised: 21 Feb 2019

See all articles by James M. Anderson

James M. Anderson

RAND Corporation

Maya Buenaventura

RAND Corporation

Paul S. Heaton

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Date Written: 2019


Debates over mass incarceration emphasize policing, bail, and sentencing reform, but give little attention to indigent defense. This omission seems surprising, given that interactions with government-provided counsel critically shape the experience of the vast majority of criminal defendants. This neglect in part reflects our lack of evidence-based knowledge regarding indigent defense, making it difficult to identify effective reforms.

One newer model gaining support is the holistic defense model, in which public defenders work in interdisciplinary teams to address both the immediate case and the underlying life circumstances--such as drug addiction, mental illness, or family or housing instability--that contribute to client contact with the criminal justice system. This holistic model contrasts with the traditional public defense model which emphasizes criminal representation and courtroom advocacy. Proponents contend holistic defense improves case outcomes and reduces recidivism by better addressing clients’ underlying needs, while critics argue that diverting resources and attention from criminal advocacy weakens results. Although widely embraced, there is no systematic evidence demonstrating the relative merits of the holistic approach.

This Article offers the first large-scale, rigorous evaluation of the impact of holistic representation on criminal justice outcomes. In the Bronx, a holistic defense provider (the Bronx Defenders) and a traditional defender (the Legal Aid Society) operate side-by-side within the same court system, with case assignment determined quasi-randomly based on court shift timing. Using administrative data covering over half a million cases and a quasi-experimental research design, we estimate the causal effect of holistic representation on case outcomes and future offending. Holistic representation does not affect conviction rates, but it reduces the likelihood of a custodial sentence by 16% and expected sentence length by 24%. Over the ten-year study period, holistic representation in the Bronx resulted in nearly 1.1 million fewer days of custodial punishment.

As of one year post-arraignment and beyond, holistic representation has neither a positive or adverse effect on criminal justice contacts. While holistic representation does not dramatically reduce recidivism, as some proponents have claimed, strengthening indigent defense apparently offers considerable potential to reduce incarceration without harming public safety. Indigent defense thus deserves a more prominent place in conversations about how to address mass incarceration, and future research should examine the effects of this promising model beyond the criminal justice system and in other jurisdictions.

Keywords: Criminal justice policy, indigent defense, legal aid, public defenders, law and economics, holistic representation, empirical legal studies, conviction rates, sentencing, recidivism, social services

JEL Classification: K14, K42

Suggested Citation

Anderson, James M. and Buenaventura, Maya and Heaton, Paul S., The Effects of Holistic Defense on Criminal Justice Outcomes (2019). Harvard Law Review, Vol. 132, p. 819, 2019, U of Penn, Inst for Law & Econ Research Paper No. 18-33, Available at SSRN:

James M. Anderson

RAND Corporation ( email )

4570 Fifth Avenue, Suite 600
Pittsburgh, PA 15213-2665
United States
412 683-2300 (Phone)

Maya Buenaventura

RAND Corporation ( email )

1776 Main Street
P.O. Box 2138
Santa Monica, CA 90407-2138
United States

Paul S. Heaton (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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