A Better Defense Leads to a Better Justice System

December 5, 2011
By Jenny Li Fowler

When the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem (NDS) opened its doors in New York City in 1990, it aimed to demonstrate the benefits of a community-based, team-based public defender system that would begin representing clients from the moment of arrest or even sooner.

So how has the program fared over its two decades? Pretty well, according to a new scholarly journal article authored by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Christopher Stone. “Innovations in Public Defense as an Investment in Better Sentencing,” published in the October edition of Federal Sentencing Review examines the impact of NDS twenty years after its launch.

Stone writes that, “Much of the success of NDS was attributable to the people—lawyers, investigators, social workers, technical staff, and volunteers—who dedicated themselves to their clients and community through this project.”

NDS clients ultimately received significantly shorter sentences, Stone writes, thus, saving a substantial amount of taxpayer dollars. And he argues that NDS continues to prove today that high-quality public defense can play an important role in controlling prison populations while improving the quality of criminal justice in general.

“The team-based, client-centered, problem-solving model proved attractive to those who found the more conventional indigent defense practice alienating and whose commitment was to their clients, not to the system,” writes Stone.

Christopher Stone is the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of the Practice of Criminal Justice. His research focuses on two distinct subjects, the improvement of criminal justice systems in the United States and worldwide and the leadership and governance of nonprofit organizations.

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Christopher Stone

Christopher Stone, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of the Practice of Criminal Justice

“The team-based, client-centered, problem-solving model proved attractive to those who found the more conventional indigent defense practice alienating and whose commitment was to their clients, not to the system,” writes Stone.