Holistic Defense

Holistic Defense StatsHolistic Defense – also referred to as community orientated or comprehensive defense - is a term used to illustrate a new method of legal representation. Established in New York in 1997 by the Bronx Defender's Office, it employs an interdisciplinary team that considers both the individual and community needs when working with a person charged with a criminal offense. This is important because unintended or collateral consequences of arrest and conviction (i.e. loss of housing, removal of children, deportation) – as well as basic and behavioral health needs (e.g., food, housing, services for mental health and substance use disorders), require a team knowledgeable in law as well as problem-solving, human behavior, and community resources. Social workers have been a great asset in efforts to increase the availability of holistic defense. The attorney and social worker team engage with clients who are often indigent, creating a model of legal representation that may reduce incarceration as well as the unintended consequences of legal involvement. 

The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission has provided state funding to support local indigent defense systems across the state of Michigan.  This funding includes support for 30 public defender offices located throughout the state.  Some of these defender offices are implementing a holistic defense model and many of the offices have or will incorporate social workers to participate as part of the defense team.  This means that social work jobs in these settings will benefit from training specific to working with lawyers charged with representing clients charged with criminal offenses.

To address these needs, The Wayne State University School of Social Work is piloting a holistic defense approach. It will begin with a pilot in Fall of 2020 and be fully running by Fall of 2021. The School is also exploring expanding the approach and course offerings by partnering with the WSU Law School. Holistic Defense is appropriate for both MSW interpersonal practice and ICPL students.

Ideally, MSW students will enter this training in their advanced year, but in some instances and perhaps with some background and/or experience in the criminal/legal system, students could enroll in their core year.

Although this is not a 'certificate' program, we are working on implementing micro-credentialing for holistic defense.

The concept of holistic defense may be new to some, however there are at least three counties in Michigan that use the model (Kalamazoo, Muskegon, and Genesee). To develop this approach, we continue to work with these pioneers as well as the MI Indigent Defense Commission.

To participate contact Advisor Lawrence Robinson at dz2996@wayne.edu or 313-577-4409. For questions contact Susan Lebold at ft2230@wayne.edu.

Participation Requirements:

  • Admission to the Wayne State University School of Social Work
  • Completion of the following during the pilot year:
    • 1 Social Work course (Cr. 3) that provides an overview of the criminal legal system, as well as information and resources on the behavioral health needs of those in the criminal legal system
    • Field Placement at an approved participating field agency
    • 2 seminar courses (1 Cr. each) Fall and Winter terms


  1. Social Work Courses: SW 6551 Behavioral Health and The Criminal/Legal System is a 3 credit course that provides an overview of the criminal legal system, as well as information and resources on the behavioral health needs of those in the criminal legal system. Although other social work courses are not required for the training program, we recommend that students take other electives within social work such as:
    1. SW 6500 Social Work and the Law (Cr. 2)
    2. SW 6535 Youth, Delinquency, and Juvenile Justice (Cr. 3)
    3. SW 6540 Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on Physical and Social Functioning (Cr. 3)
    4. SW 6575 Violence Prevention and Intervention (Cr. 3)
  2. Law School Courses: Although not likely to be available during the pilot year (AY 20/21), future students in the holistic defense approach will also take a 3-credit course that will introduce Social Work students to legal processes and procedures. This course is currently included in the undergrad Social Work and Law minor and students taking it while an undergraduate student will not have to take another Law class.

Field Placement and Seminar:

Pilot Placement Sites: For the pilot year there will be three organizations (listed below) will participate as placement sites for selected students. Each organization employs an attorney(s) who engages in defense work and will be working in an interprofessional group with social workers and other allied health professionals.

  1. Neighborhood Defender Service of Detroit
  2. Federal Community Defender Office in Detroit
  3. Detroit Justice Center

Interested students will inform their assigned Placement Assistant within the Office of Field Education during the period when field placements are arranged.

Seminar: Any student participating in the holistic defense approach and is placed at one of the aforementioned field agencies, will also be required to participate in a 1 credit hour seminar, SW 6991 Holistic Defense Lecture, for two semesters. This seminar course is taken simultaneously while the student is in field placement and meets for 2 hours every other week. It will be focused on discussing and processing issues within the field experience – but also issues such as collaborative working relationships, conflict resolution, confidentiality, and ethics. This seminar will be open to MSW students and other disciplines, with permission, including law students.