Holistic Defense

Holistic Defense also referred to as community orientated or comprehensive defense is a term used to illustrate an innovative and effective method of legal representation. Made popular in New York in 1997 by the Bronx Defender's Office, holistic defense employs an interdisciplinary team that considers both the individual and community needs when working with a person charged with a criminal offense. Successfully serving a client charged with a criminal or juvenile offense requires attending to 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), requiring a team knowledgeable in the 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. A 2018 study by Rand Corp. and UPENN Law, reviewed over half a million cases in the Bronx Criminal Court over a 10 year period and discovered the Bronx holistic public defense model resulted in a 16% reduction in incarceration for clients, 24% shorter sentences, 9% reduction in pre-trial detention, helped clients avoid 1.1 million days of incarceration and saved New York taxpayers an estimated $165 million on housing costs alone.

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 plan to incorporate social workers to participate as part of the defense team. Social workers employed in these settings will benefit from training specific to working with lawyers responsible for representing clients charged with criminal offenses. 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 address this emerging need, the WSU School of Social Work has developed a course series that includes a holistic defense model. In partnership with the WSU Law School, Social Work has expanded our holistic defense course offerings. Social Work is working on implementing micro-credentialing for the holistic defense course series, with more details to come.


Participants are expected to meet the minimum undergraduate 2.75 GPA requirement outlined by WSU Graduate Admissions and must be admitted to the WSU School of Social Work Master of Social Work (MSW) program.  

Holistic Defense is appropriate for both MSW concentrations: Interpersonal Practice and Innovations in Community Policy and Leadership 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 may be permitted to enroll in their core year.

Program requirements

The Holistic Defense Course Series involves a total of one Social Work course (2 Cr.) and the successful completion of 2 semesters at an assigned practicum placement. Social Work students are also encouraged to take related electives (see below). Students are required to achieve and maintain an overall GPA of 3.0 throughout the classes and practicum experience. 


  1. Social Work Courses:
      1. SW 6991 Special Topics: Holistic Defense (Cr. 2) seminar is an interdisciplinary class offered in the fall term and is taken simultaneously while the student is in practicum placement. Law and social work students participate in the seminar together. The course focuses on the basics of holistic defense for indigent clients involved in the criminal legal system, including topics such as working in interdisciplinary legal teams, mitigation in criminal cases, investigation techniques, confidentiality, and ethics.
      2. Although other social work courses are not required for the course series, we recommend that students take other electives within social work such as:
        1. SW 6551 Behavioral Health and The Criminal/Legal System (3 Cr., highly recommended) course in the winter term 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. The course includes a semester-long, mock-investigation of a capital murder case. This course is highly beneficial if taken before enrolling the required SW 6991 Holistic Defense Seminar course and practicum placement.
        2. SW 6500 Social Work and the Law (Cr. 2)
        3. SW 6535 Youth, Delinquency, and Juvenile Justice (Cr. 3)
        4. SW 6540 Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on Physical and Social Functioning (Cr. 3)
        5. SW 6575 Violence Prevention and Intervention (Cr. 3)
  2. Law School Courses: Students in the holistic defense course series 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. The Law School is in the process of determining the select law classes that social work students will be eligible to enroll.

Practicum education

Placement Sites: Students will complete a minimum of 225 practicum education hours for 2 semesters (450 hours total). Students can elect to complete additional hours/credits to apply to their electives if approved by the agency and the WSU Social Work Office of Practicum Education. Six organizations currently 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. We intend to expand placement opportunities as the program grows.

  1. Detroit Justice Center
  2. Federal Community Defender Office in Detroit
  3. Neighborhood Defender Service of Detroit
  4. State Appellate Defender Office
  5. Washtenaw County Public Defender Office
  6. Macomb County Public Defender Office

Interested students will inform their assigned Placement Assistant within the Office of Practicum Education of their participation in the Holistic Defense Course Series during the period when practicum placements are arranged. 

Seminar: Any student participating in the Holistic Defense Course Series and is placed at one of the holistic defense practicum agencies, will also be required to participate in a seminar, SW 6991 Holistic Defense Lecture (2 Cr.), in the fall semester. This seminar course is taken simultaneously while the student is in practicum placement. This seminar is open to MSW and law students.


Lawrence Robinson
Academic Advisor II

Athena Kheibari, PhD
Assistant Professor and Holistic Defense Coordinator