Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem

Today I learned you have the freedom to do things or say things that get you out of trouble.

-- P.S. 115 student, after participating in the NDS street law course

The Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) of Harlem, NY, set out to test the theory that if the quality of justice for clients is improved, overall costs to the justice system will decrease because clients spend less time locked up. By purposefully addressing many of the structural problems that plague attorneys in traditional defender agencies, NDS has significantly reduced the amount of time clients spend in jail or prison and made important contributions to their quality of life (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Comparison of Days Spent in Incarceration One unique aspect of NDS is its location: Instead of setting up shop in a courthouse, NDS operates in the neighborhood it serves. NDS is thus accessible to its clientele and is able to encourage them to obtain NDS assistance as soon as possible. As part of an ongoing outreach campaign to promote its free legal services, NDS distributes cards with its phone number and a formalized request for an attorney with a statement of the bearer's nonwaiver of rights. NDS also conducts workshops in neighborhood elementary, junior high, and high schools to teach youth their rights and methods of handling and deescalating confrontations with the police. As a result of this outreach work, half of NDS clients seek out the agency's attorneys before arraignment. Encouraging clients to call NDS can lead to an immediate benefit for juveniles: Every child who is arrested and under the jurisdiction of family court is interviewed by a probation officer. Early intervention allows NDS attorneys to accompany children and their families to these probation interviews to advise them. Court appointed attorneys cannot engage in this practice because probation interviews typically occur before the appointment of counsel.

The swift retention of attorneys goes hand in hand with early, aggressive investigation, which is another hallmark of the NDS approach. While most public defenders do not get the case until the client's first appearance in court, the early retention of NDS enables attorneys to gather their own information instead of relying on information from police or prosecutors. In particular, NDS can investigate crime scenes quickly because of its close proximity to those crime scenes. In some cases, NDS can scout out a location and speak to witnesses before the client is even booked. Early intervention in juvenile cases enables NDS attorneys to work with out-of-school clients to place them in a school or job program. Having their clients constructively involved in a program gives NDS attorneys a bargaining chip at disposition and, in some cases, allows them to avoid going to court at all.

A broad-based team approach to representation is another way NDS has altered the traditional legal services delivery structure to provide clients with seamless and holistic assistance. Instead of attorneys laboring alone in their offices, teams of attorneys, investigators, social workers, and administrative assistants work in open areas and confer regularly. All members of the team file computerized reports, allowing other team members to look up cases and provide anxious clients with any new information, even when the attorney is not available. The team approach also allows attorneys to work as co-counsel on cases that go to trial and ensures continuity of representation in the event that an attorney leaves the agency or is unable to attend a hearing or stay with the case.

The NDS approach to legal services is comprehensive. Social workers address the social needs that frequently overshadow their clients' legal problems. NDS also has received funding to address civil legal problems that arise out of criminal matters, such as housing and family law issues. In addition, NDS attorneys who work with juveniles are able to represent their clients in school expulsion or suspension hearings.

Innovative Approaches to Juvenile Indigent Defense Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  December 1998