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Defending Santa Barbara’s Most Vulnerable 

Public Defenders and Family Service Agency Give Clients a Voice Through Holistic Defense

Lead Holistic Defense Advocate Erica Bottorff and the Community Defender Division work together to help clients connect with community resources as they make their way through the court system. | Credit: Paul Wellman

At 40 years old, Jessica is learning to live a new kind of life. She grew up in Santa Barbara helping her mom steal things from stores and being verbally and physically abused by her family. “I grew up so sad,” she told the Independent. Jessica (not her real name) was still a bright kid who got good grades, but nevertheless had to juggle holding down a job, watching her younger siblings, and tending to the house. “By 17, I wanted to retire,” she said.

She moved in with an older boyfriend, was introduced to meth, and began a life spent in and out of jail. Though she struggled to get her life in order, working hard to become a registered nurse, she let her relationships control everything. “I ruined my life trying to get my mom to love me,” she said.

The endless cycle of jail continued even after Jessica had a baby. But two years ago, when she was arrested, a new program called Holistic Defense was being launched, and she was selected to become a recipient. While she was in jail, her mother tried to get custody of her child. “Nobody cared about [my child] and me and our relationship,” she said. Not until Lead Advocate for Holistic Defense Erica Bottorff got involved. With Bottorff’s help, Jessica was able to retain custody of her child, receive treatment for her substance abuse, and live at Transition House with her baby. Jessica, who has been sober for almost two years now, says she can’t even think about Bottorff without getting emotional. “Going to court is so scary,” she said. “They don’t let you talk, but Erica gives you a voice. She’s given me another life.”

Someone in Your Corner

A run-in with the law can leave a permanent mark on a person’s life. A night in jail can cause someone to lose a job. Court fees can force a family to decide between food on the table or being in contempt of court. An offense can disqualify a person from housing and call into question their immigration status. The collateral effects on an individual, a family, and the community are endless. “The belief that a misdemeanor arrest or conviction is insignificant … Could be nothing further from the truth,” said Public Defender Tracy Macuga.

Poverty comes with an additional load of barriers that make it difficult to navigate through life and  nearly impossible to focus on fighting a court case. Often, it’s those same barriers that drive someone into the traps leading to jail. To remedy this, the Office of Public Defenders (OPD) and the Family Service Agency (FSA) joined together to pilot a Holistic Defense program in Santa Barbara. The program is structured and developed to address the problems caused by run-ins with the law and to ease the hardships of poverty that can keep folks caught in the web of criminal justice and incarceration.

There are five major areas that Holistic Defense tackles: lack of housing, unemployment, substance abuse, mental health, and additional legal trouble such as probation, child custody, or immigration status. But Holistic Defense goes far beyond those areas. It takes people who are susceptible to being invisible in the community and the court system and makes them feel seen and heard, said FSA Holistic Defense Manager Gabriela Dodson.

One Holistic Defense client certainly agrees. Jack (not his real name) likes to say he’s been at the Public Defender’s office longer than any of the lawyers there today. And he might be right. Now in his late fifties, he had his first public defender when he was 16 years old. Throughout the course of his life, Jack served 12 years behind bars and spent 28 collective years on probation. Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Jack had a difficult childhood during which he says, “Everyone always took advantage of me.” He started drinking and taking drugs as a young teen and always had trouble managing his anger.

Photo: Paul Wellman FileFamily Service Agency Holistic Defense Manger Gabriela Dodson (Left), Lead Advocate for Holistic Defense Erica Bottorff, and Public Defender Tracy Macuga

About two years ago, Jack was arrested when he lost his temper and damaged property. After his employer found out, he was fired even though he had been awarded employee of the month just before his arrest. Following his arrest, he became estranged from his family, lost his housing, and was forced to move into his car, where he subsequently developed a painful case of shingles.

Now, two year later, his life has made a complete turnaround. Jack has been sober for two and a half years, is employed, has stable housing, regained his health, and says his daughters complain he’s too happy. He attributes all of this to the Holistic Defense program and the work of Bottorff, who was his social advocate. “I just let her help me,” he said.

He was surprised at how far he’d come in the time since his arrest. He recalled a time when he reached out to Bottorff. “I was hysterical when I called,” he said. Bottorff stayed with him every step of the way, immediately working to get him food stamps that same day, finding him proper medical care, and connecting him with an effective anger management program. “Every time I went to court, Erica was there,” he said. “And the judge would ask her, ‘What do you think, Ms. Bottorff?’” Jack thinks of Bottorff as his partner.  “It’s too hard [on your own],” he said. “You just end up stumbling through life.” As far as he is concerned, Holistic Defense changed his life. “I got rescued,” he said, “not arrested.”

Speaking to Be Heard

More than anything, clients appreciate being listened to and gaining a voice in the court system through their social advocate. Clients said they felt understood and seen as more than just a police report or file. “The understanding that goes along with it … [having a] voice in court is everything,” Jessica said. Holistic Defense creates space for the client and allows for them to actively participate in their defense. “When clients feel like they have a role, they’re more on board,” Bottorff said.

Social advocates are working upstream to gain the trust of clients who generally have feelings of mistrust for the criminal justice system. Social advocates show up consistently and follow through on their promises to clients. “We’ve gone to PHFs [psychiatric health facilities], Cottage, we’re in the community with clients,” Dodson said. In a study done by Public Policy Institute researcher Heather Harris, one client remembered, “[The social advocate] said she was gonna keep track of how I did in a year. … And she was gonna be there at court supporting me and telling the DA and the attorneys that I was doing good if I did good. And she did, she actually did.”

Holistic Defense is making a tangible difference in the lives of clients and changing the way they perceive the criminal justice system. These were some of the goals in mind when FSA and OPD applied for a funding grant in 2017 to launch the pilot program. The program is one of only a handful in the nation and structured after the Bronx Public Defenders in New York City. The Bronx Defenders championed Holistic Defense in the ’90s, fueled by the frustration of seeing a revolving door of clients who seemed to be caught indefinitely in the system. Macuga shares a similar sentiment. “To be effective and competent is so much more than getting a client a good deal or winning a trial,” she said. “It’s about helping them as people and keeping them out for longer periods of time and in turn helping the community.”

Holistic Defense recently received a grant to fund an additional social worker to specifically help women in the criminal justice system. A person’s involvement with the criminal justice system can have compounding effects on their families, communities, and even the local economy, Macuga said. These effects are heightened when women get involved because oftentimes, they are mothers.

Photo: Paul WellmanLead Advocate for Holistic Defense Erica Bottorff (left) and Public Defender Tracy Macuga (right) listen as client Jack recounts his experience with Holistic Defense.

Because the entire program is still in its initial stages, not all public defender clients can receive Holistic Defense. Clients who are selected and screened by attorneys are also assigned a social advocate. Together, the three work the legal case, as well as the underlying problems plaguing the client. While the three work closely together, their efforts are reinforced by a team of miracle workers behind the scenes.

Movers & Shakers

Holistic Defense has a Community Defender Division helping attorneys, clients, and social advocates make moves. The team of treatment coordinators help connect clients with housing, treatment, transportation, and other necessities.

Connecting people who are low income with programs that work for them is more difficult than it sounds. “If you have insurance, then you have options, but some low-income people don’t even have Medi-Cal, and programs are full,” Bottorff said. That’s where the team comes in. Treatment coordinators work to find programs compatible for clients and then drive clients all around the state so they can make their appointments in these programs. Investigative Assistant Ruendy Aguayo spends a lot of time getting to know clients as he drives them around the state to programs and appointments. “They know they’re going through a difficult time, but as long as they want to move forward, we’re going to be there every step of the way,” Aguayo said.

Before getting paired with a treatment program, clients must be document-ready, meaning they need to have some form of identification and a Social Security card. After the treatment program they must have a housing option. “It’s virtually impossible to be sober and safe if you’re living on the street,” said South Coast Housing Coordinator Iliana de Hoyos.

The social advocate can work with the client in a way that isn’t possible between an attorney and client. “There are things we can’t do because we don’t have the skills to do them,” Macuga said. But Bottorff and the other social advocates are trained for this type of work and can talk to and get to know clients in ways attorneys cannot. “It allows me to better advocate,” said Public Defender Rebecca Seldin. 

They provide depth and dimension to a case, allowing the judge to see a human standing in the dock, rather than just reading a file on the bench. The social advocate also writes a report with the clients about the progress and work they’re doing to help themselves that is then presented to the courts.

While the main objective is to curb recidivism and to help the client in the courtroom, Holistic Defense has an impact far beyond that. The Holistic Defense space on the first floor of the Public Defender’s office reflects that. The lavender-scented office has a homey feel to it, with art up on the walls, a couch, and coffee and tea for clients. The Community Defender Division has an open-door policy and many clients take full advantage of that. Often, clients are already waiting for them when social advocates and team members come in. Clients ask for warm clothes, sleeping bags, hygiene products, and other day-to-day necessities. There’s also a library inside the Holistic Defense office where clients can borrow books ​— ​anything from self-help to James Patterson and Barbara Kingsolver.

But Is It Working?

The program is only just starting to kick off the ground and pick up speed, but already it has made a difference in Santa Barbara. In funding the pilot program, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation budgeted for a pilot study to be conducted in conjunction with the program. Then UC Berkeley postdoc and current research fellow for the Public Policy Institute of California Heather Harris conducted the study. Harris found Holistic Defense clients were sentenced to serve less time and had charges dropped more often than their control counterparts.

The differences are fairly significant. Little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of Holistic Defense, in part because the practice is still relatively new. One of the few studies, and the only conducted over a 10-year period, examined the effectiveness of the Bronx Defenders. The Bronx study, also known as the RAND study, showed Holistic Defense had a 16 percent drop in incarceration, cut pre-trial detention by 9 percent, shortened sentence length by 24 percent, and saved New York taxpayers an estimated $165 million on housing costs alone. Santa Barbara’s finding were even more significant.

In Santa Barbara, Holistic Defense clients were sentenced to 50 percent fewer days in jail than their control counterparts. This translated into a $250,000 saving for the county. These savings were generated by the 48 holistic clients served in a period of a little over a year. Holistic Defense clients also had a 60.7 percent greater likelihood to have charges dropped and were 25.8 percent less likely to plead guilty. All of this while maintaining the safety of the community.

However, the RAND study did not show a reduction in recidivism and the Santa Barbara study was not conducted long enough to have recidivism data be statistically significant. But even if Holistic Defense does not impact recidivism, it’s difficult to dismiss the rippling effects it has on the community. “Our jails are a reflection of our community,” Macuga said. “Through Holistic Defense, we’re helping the community on a deeper level.”

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