The Bronx Defenders: Redefining Public Defense

March 29, 2013

Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Gideon vs. Wainwright that criminal defendants have the constitutional right to legal representation, whether they can afford it or not. But today’s public defenders are overworked and underpaid, and the scales of justice still tilt heavily in favor of the wealthy.

An organization in Bronx, New York is trying to change that. The Bronx Defenders are redefining public defense with a holistic model that addresses the underlying problems driving people into the criminal justice system, providing both legal counsel and social services under one roof. It’s proven so successful that the Justice Department tasked them with teaching the model to public defenders in other cities.

This week on Moyers & Company, Bill Moyers explores judicial inequality and the faltering legacy of Gideon comprehensively. Watch a preview and tune in this weekend.

Producer/editor: Lauren Feeney. Camera: Cameron Hickey

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  • Doug Harvey

    Thanks Bill and thanks to the Bronx Defenders — we need this EVERYWHERE!

  • Bill Trevillo

    This is really really heartening story. The only problem is, we need to get away from the private-prisons-for-profit model before it’s really “cost effective” to not lock people up, because the corporations profiting from increasingly draconian sentencing laws don’t really care that the taxpayers are footing the bill from all this “collateral damage” from the war on drugs (and crime, in general)

  • Stephen Jones

    Orange County, California, of all places, has been very successfully moving representatives of social services agencies into its courthouses. Throughout California, though, where I practice, judges who hear misdemeanor cases have largely become administrators of such programs, as it seems that they’re only available to people once their problems have led them to commit a crime. (And generally, convicted misdemeanor defendants are placed on “informal” probation, and thus don’t have probation officers.) Spend a morning watching a misdo calendar being heard, and you’ll see an endless stream of defendants on probation for minor offenses, who might not be there if they had been able to get drug and alcohol counseling, parenting classes, anger management, job training, etc. at an earlier stage in their lives — and a judge (who’s often a former prosecutor) trying to perform a function very different than that for which he or she was trained.

  • Calm CalmCalm

    Young people only think of “Time” when the lawyer recommends a plea deal.
    Nobody talks about how the plea deal will brand you as a leper within our society for an eternity.

  • Susan MacDonnell

    wow, brought tears to my eyes that somewhere in this country something good is happening for this very vulnerable population. hope this model can be exported to every other urban area in the country first and foremost, then in every court district!

  • Anonymous

    My daughter did an internship there. They are terrific people doing great work.

  • Lisa Murray

    GREAT story! Here’s one more in the South Bronx in that very Court House that’s working: United Assembly Schools!

    The UA Bronx School for Law, Government & Justice 244 East 163rd Street
    Bronx, NY 10451
    School Phone: 718-410-2380

    Grades 2012-13: 6-12 | Grades at full enrollment: 6-12
    Community District: Morrisania (CD 4)
    DoE Website:
    Principal: Meisha Ross-Porter

    Founded in 1997, the first high school in the nation to be located in a judicial complex, The Bronx School for Law, Government & Justice combines law-related studies with real-world learning experiences. The school has its own mock courtroom and crime and forensic labs, and uses the New Bronx Criminal Court Complex as an extended classroom. Students explore careers in law and government through coursework, mentoring relationships and internships while preparing for the challenges of college.

  • Barbara Levin

    Thanks for Sharing this with me. Barbara

  • Thomas Justice

    Bronx Defenders, a group of defense lawyers in Bronx, New York City, had taken part in the making of a video that advocated violence against police officers, according to a city investigation on Thursday. The video “Hands Up,” with lyrics, “time to start killing these coppers,” showed singers pointing guns at the head of a person pretending to be a police officer.

    The DOI report said the two lawyers had encouraged the organization to take part in the video, after the company that produced the video approached them, The Wall Street Journal reported. There was “serious misconduct” by the two lawyers and “gross mismanagement” on the part of Robin Steinberg, the organization’s executive director, who failed to discipline the lawyers and sent “misleading letters” about the video to officials, media reports said, citing the investigation report.

    They are redefining public defense alright!

  • Thomas Justice

    According to the DOI, attorneys at The Bronx Defenders “participated in the video, and allowed the organization’s offices to be used in the video, despite knowing that it advocated the killing of police officers.” The report also criticizes the organization’s Executive Director, Robin Steinberg, for failing to discipline the staff after learning of their conduct, as well as lying to officials about the Bronx Defenders’ involvement.