An interview with Justine Olderman
The Bronx Defenders recently joined NAPD. Here is an interview with BxD Executive Director, Justine Olderman.
NAPD: Tell us about your career as a public defender?
When I went to law school, I was deeply interested in social justice and public interest, but did not develop a passion for public defense until my summer internship in the Criminal Defense Division of the Legal Aid Society. That summer was transformative. I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with clients, listening to their stories and getting to know them. I was overwhelmed by the injustice that I saw but also inspired by the clients I met. I knew after that summer that I wanted to stand alongside people in the criminal legal system and do whatever I could to help them in their fight for justice. When I started looking for work, I learned about a relatively new office in the South Bronx that had just started accepting applications from recent graduates. That office was The Bronx Defenders. In 2000, when I began as a staff attorney at BxD, the entire organization was comprised of 30 attorneys, social workers, investigators, and administrative staff focused almost exclusively on criminal defense work. After 18 years, I'm still here and our organization has grown to more than 350 attorneys, social workers, investigators, advocates, and administrators focusing on criminal defense, family defense, housing, employment, immigration, benefits, impact litigation, policy reform, mentoring, and community organizing.
NAPD: What led you to move into leadership?
As a young lawyer, I learned so much from my supervisors, peers, and clients about what it meant to be a holistic, client-centered, and community oriented lawyer. As I became more experienced myself, I looked for opportunities to pass on that knowledge to new generations of public defenders. That opportunity came after four years, when Robin Steinberg, our founder and my mentor, gave me my first leadership position. I, along with a colleague, were put in charge of training and supervising our newest class of advocates. Since then, I have had the opportunity to supervise both new and experienced staff, manage and grow our criminal defense practice, and oversee the day-to-day operations of the entire organization. In each role, I have looked for new ways to strengthen our model, support our staff, and better serve clients, their families, and their communities. I have loved supervising, managing, and leading but recognize that, in taking on these roles, I have moved further away from the very thing that motivated me to become a public defender in the first place, the clients. To make sure that I don't lose the connection to our clients, I have had to find new ways of connecting to the people we serve.
NAPD: Tell us about the Bronx Defenders Office?
The Bronx Defenders is an office that is seeking to redefine public defense by pushing the boundaries of what a public defender can and should do. We have spearheaded a model of defense called holistic defense, which seeks to address both the personal and societal causes of system involvement as well as mitigate the enmeshed penalties of that involvement. Our model recognizes that once in the legal system, it can be staggeringly hard to get out. A criminal case can result in deportation and a housing case can lead to a child welfare investigation. Our model breaks down the traditional silos between these different disciplines by creating holistic teams of lawyer and non-lawyer advocates specializing in multiple practice areas. Depending on their individual needs and goals, a Bronx Defender client might end up working with multiple attorneys and non-attorney advocates who all collaborate to meet the client's multifaceted legal and non-legal needs. This past year alone, we provided zealous, client-centered advocacy to 27,000 clients in criminal, family, immigration, and housing court and we reached hundreds more through our community intake and outreach programs.
NAPD: What are your top priorities at The Bronx Defender?
My top priority as Executive Director is to take what we have learned over the past 20 years and build on it to better serve clients, their families, and this community. One way I want to do that is to strengthen and grow our systemic reform work. I believe that public defenders are perfectly situated to create long lasting social change. We are on the front lines in the fight for fairness, justice, and equality. We can identify the problems because we bear witness to them every day. As professionals with subject matter expertise, we are also able to craft solutions to these problems. And because we work side by side with our clients, we can help them tell their stories in ways that create greater awareness about systemic injustice. We are also in an ideal position to create and strengthen partnerships that help build momentum for real and necessary reform. Through our policy, community organizing, and impact litigation practices, we can work alongside affected communities to bring systemic reform to our justice systems.
Another priority is growing our preventive justice work, which is based on the preventive medicine model. A small team of lawyer and non-lawyer advocates seeks to intervene to stop legal issues from becoming legal cases. When we can't prevent a case from being filed, our early advocacy serves to mitigate the harms of court involvement. We currently provide early advocacy for criminal, family, immigration, and housing issues but don't have the funding or capacity to meet the need of the community we serve. In the years to come, we hope to build on the successes of our small team and help more people avoid system involvement.
NAPD: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
I would describe my leadership style as participatory. I believe that I am at my best as a leader when I am guided by the experiences and perspectives of those around me, from the newest to the most experienced staff to our clients and community members. I am also always looking for feedback and asking what is working and what is not so that I can evolve and grow as a leader as well as find the best ways to advance the mission of our organization.
NAPD: What is your organization's greatest strength?
Our greatest strength is our staff. Our office is filled with the most brilliant, compassionate, and fiercest advocates that I have ever met. They are the ones who make our holistic defense model work. They are always pushing holistic defense to newer and greater heights, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a public defender, and constantly asking what more we can be doing for our clients.
NAPD: What are your organization's biggest barriers?
The biggest barriers to achieving justice for our clients are structural racism and classism. People often want to judge the success of our program on whether we have reduced re-arrest rates. Looking at our work through that lens ignores the greater societal forces that drive clients into the legal system, prevent them from achieving justice once there, and then make it difficult for them to extricate themselves.
The biggest barrier to our operation as an organization is funding. Even in a jurisdiction as well-resourced as New York City, most of our funding goes to the legal work that happens between the courthouse doors. Our contracts state that representation begins once a case is filed and ends when it is over. But public defense can and should be more than that. A well-funded organization should have sufficient resources to address the underlying personal and societal issues that drive people into the legal system, and not be limited to traditional notions of what public defenders do. We should be able to create programs that help divert people away from the system and help mitigate their system involvement where diversion is impossible. Even when a case is over, our offices should be able to go where our clients go and help them with the legal and non-legal consequences of their case.
NAPD: Are excessive workloads a problem in your office?
Compared to other jurisdictions, we are incredibly fortunate. While we have certainly experienced excessive caseloads in the past, the combination of a decrease in crime and an effort to divert a greater number of low-level cases out of the legal system has definitely helped alleviate that pressure. Of course, there is always more work to be done when it comes to fighting injustice. With lower workloads, we would have more time to investigate our cases, draft novel motions, and prepare for trial. We would also have more time to assess our clients' other legal and non-legal needs, make referrals and work collaboratively within our team-based model with advocates in other practice areas. Finally, we would have more time to get to know our clients, understanding their priorities and goals, and help them achieve those goals.
NAPD: What is the status of pretrial release in New York City?
In recent years, New York City has improved on its already high rate of pretrial release. Historically, approximately 70% of people charged in the city's criminal courts are released from custody on their own recognizance, that is, without any conditions or money bail at all. The introduction of Supervised Release, a program that allows people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent offense to be released under varying levels of supervision, has increased the options available to judges to release people without setting money bail. In addition, there are now three different charitable bail funds operating throughout the city that are able to post bail up to $2,000 for people unable to make relatively small bail amounts.
Challenges, however, remain. For example, while there have been numerous efforts to increase the use of "alternative forms of bail" that do not require clients and their families to pay nonrefundable premiums to commercial bail bond agents, many of the city's judges remain resistant to setting anything but insurance company bonds and money bail. Moreover, our bail system is still rife with race and class-based disparities. Recently, our organization participated in efforts to address these challenges through legislative reform. While there was some momentum for change, it was not enough to get us across the finish line. We plan on taking back up the campaign in the next legislative session.
NAPD: Your office is famous for how it relates to the client community? Can you tell us more?
One of the pillars of our model of holistic defense is “a deep connection to and understanding of the community we serve.” This connection and understanding deepens our relationship with clients and helps us better advocate for them in and out of court. It also helps us evolve and grow to meet the changing needs of those we serve. We develop this connection to and understanding of the community in a host of different ways. First, we are located in the heart of the South Bronx and run a community intake program every day. Through that program, community members can come into our office, without an appointment, and meet with an attorney about any legal issue or problem. That attorney will assess the issue and if we cannot help the community member, he will help connect the person to an organization that can. This program not only helps us meet the needs of the community but learn about the issues that are impacting them most. Second, we host regular events in our office and in the community from know your rights trainings and community forums to popular education series and an annual block party. Recently, we held a police brutality forum and invited community members to share their accounts experiencing or witnessing police brutality. We also held a community day of justice where we conducted workshops on public housing exclusions and school disciplinary procedures, screened people for record sealing, and conducted employment and immigration trainings. Events like these help us provide services to those outside of our client population and hear about the issues that matter most to community members. We also have a community day of service when our staff goes out into the surrounding neighborhoods to work in community gardens and parks, distribute food to the homeless, and introduce our work to students and the local schools. Finally, we have a community organizing project that sends organizers out into the community to conduct surveys, lend support for community campaigns, and ensure that our work is informed by the issues that matter most to those we serve.
NAPD: Tell us about how you ensure diversity in your organization?
We recognize that diversity is critical to our organization's work, mission and values. To that end, we have developed a recruitment plan that promotes diversity by shaping where we go to recruit, who is on the hiring committee, and what kind of mentoring programs we offer to our staff and interns. For recruitment, we attend diversity career fairs, have developed relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and partnered with several diversity pipeline programs for college students. We also recruit at LGBTQI+ Career Fairs, and several other places that connect us with diverse populations seeking employment.
To promote diversity of perspective and representation in hiring decisions, we ensure that each hiring committee for any position throughout The Bronx Defenders consists of lawyers and non-lawyers with various areas of expertise and from a diversity of backgrounds.
For our interns, we have created an Intern of Color and LBGTQI+ Mentoring Program, in which our summer interns are paired with experienced advocates of a similar backgrounds, and participate in sessions exploring issues of diversity as it relates to their careers and the representation of our clients. Since our summer internship program is unpaid, we have also launched a program to provide a summer stipend to those who would otherwise be unable to accept an internship at The Bronx Defenders because of financial hardship. Such initiatives have become a pipeline for permanent staff positions.
Finally, we want to ensure that we are not only recruiting but retaining our diverse staff. To that end, new staff attend a 6 month, in house, workshop on issues of race, class, power, and privilege to promote a more conscious approach to our interactions with clients and colleagues as well as to promote a safer and more inclusive workplace. For our leaders of color, we give them an opportunity to enroll in a course at The Management Center that creates space to discuss the unique challenges of being a manager of color in progressive and social justice organizations and to share practices that can help managers of color thrive. We have also created a race, class, power, and privilege working group to help identify and address issues that disproportionately impact people of diverse backgrounds and experiences in our work and workplace.
NAPD: How do you ensure that professional development occurs for your staff?
There are a few different ways that we create opportunities for professional development. The first is through in-house trainings. As an accredited CLE provider, we conduct trainings all year long on substantive areas of practice as well as litigation skills. We also provide funds to every staff members to use towards professional development opportunities outside of the office, from language courses to conferences. We send staff who become supervisors and managers to a special training run by The Management Center that covers topics such as check-in meetings, giving feedback, time management, and delegation.
NAPD: In 4 years, how do you want people to describe your organization?
How I want people to describe our organization depends on who they are! Generally, I want people to describe our organization as a laboratory for innovation in public defense. But, more specifically, I want our funders to describe us as key players in the movement for racial and social justice; I want our partner organizations to describe us as allies and friends; I want our fellow defenders to describe us as helping to improve public defense, elevate the work that we do as defenders, and better the reputation of public defenders; I want our staff to describe us as an exciting and supportive place to work; And most importantly, I want our clients to describe us as an organization that cares about them, that spends time getting to know them, that listens to them and helps them overcome challenges and meet their goals, that involves them in strategic decision-making, and that swings for the fences when it comes to defending them.
NAPD: How do you maintain work/life balance?
As an organization, we are committed to helping our staff maintain a healthy and positive work/life balance while recognizing that what that means may look very different from one staff member to the next and may change over time. Over the past few years, we have created guidelines for after-hours communications, adopted a new Employee Assistance Plan, improved our health care offerings, and started closing early on summer Fridays. We also have a generous vacation policy that creates enormous flexibility for people to take time off when they need it, whether for a mental health day or for a planned vacation. But most of all, we are trying to create a culture where everyone recognizes that taking care of oneself is an important part of doing this work and doing it well.
NAPD: What else do you want your fellow defenders to know about you and your organization?
I want our fellow defenders to know that we are not just dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what public defenders can and should do in the Bronx. We are dedicated to working with our fellow defenders from one end of the country to the next to find new and innovative ways to help our clients in their fight for justice. Through our Center for Holistic Defense, we provide opportunities for organizations and individuals to learn more about our model and to strategize about how they can integrate holistic advocacy into their practices and jurisdictions. We are also interested in learning from our fellow defenders about innovative initiatives in their own jurisdictions that are having a positive impact. Relationships with other defenders not only provide us with the chance to share what we have learned but to learn from others. We look forward to building on the relationships that we already have and creating new ones in the years to come.