Interview with Jeanette Kinard: Holistic Public Defender’s Offices

USICH spoke with Jeanette Kinard the Director of the Mental Health Public Defenders (MHPD) Office in Travis County Texas (County seat of Austin, TX).

In many public defenders offices, lawyers work on a timeline that begins with their clients arrest and ends when the case is dismissed, their client accepts a plea bargain, or the case ends in trial. Holistic public defenders offices work differently. They don’t start with the exclusive goal of defending the client legally in one case. Instead they have the goal of helping the client address the issues that brought them to the court system to begin with. They address the holistic needs of their clients by providing access to case management and services that go beyond legal aid and help the clients achieve long term stability.

In Travis County, Texas, a team of two lawyers, two master’s level social workers, and two case workers handle 400 legal cases plus an additional 100 other cases referred to them by other lawyers each year. They work exclusively with clients the court has determined to have a mental illness, many of whom are also experiencing homelessness at the time of arrest. The MHPD team either connects their clients directly to services or works with partners at local organizations to provide medical care, housing assistance, employment services, clothing, and some very basic household needs, and to set up access to Social Security and Veterans’ benefits.

“We don’t have a time limit for working with clients and we don’t have strict rules that clients must adhere to,” said Jeanette Kinard. “We work with the client for as long as they benefit from it. In some cases this means active case management over a few years. And we work with clients in a way that helps them achieve their goals.” In one example, Kinard said that a client who had a severe substance abuse disorder needed to enter rehab, but he wouldn’t do it because in order to complete the inpatient program he would have to give up his dog. The MHPD staff developed a calendar to dog sit for the client while he completed rehab and got sober. “Sometimes we have to be a little creative, the client needed rehab to get healthy, but he also needed his dog. This is just one example where the holistic approach allowed us to meet the client where he was and help him make steps toward stability,” said Kinard.

After five years, it is clear that this program is successful. MHPD clients use fewer justice system dollars after they receive support from MHPD. Trials, bookings, jail bed days, and recidivism are all reduced. Several other counties in Texas have since adopted a similar model and are also seeing results. Communities benefit in three ways: the burden on the justice system (and likely other public systems) is reduced, local residents in need of support are helped to reenter society, and the visibility of homelessness is reduced. 

A note from Jeanette Kinard:

There are different models of holistic public defender’s offices that can work. Our office operates with dedicated mental health lawyers and it has worked very well for us. San Mateo County, California pioneered a model that relies on a centralized office for case management and social services, but contracts out legal services to a qualified list of lawyers who manage their own expenses. This contract based model is something that might work better but achieve similar results for smaller communities as it doesn’t require full time legal staff.