Heard on Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson

Wayne State University Launches “Holistic Defense” Pilot for Criminal Defendants

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Image credit: Jake Neher/WDET

Law and social work students in the program will address multiple issues that clients face, including sentencing mitigation, access to treatment services, re-entry work and more.

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Wayne State University will implement a holistic defense partnership program in fall 2021. The program will pair social work and law students to assist clients in criminal defense offices in Detroit. The students will tackle systemic issues in the criminal justice system under the supervision of licensed attorneys and social workers. 

When you look at the unintended consequences of an individual who goes further and further into the criminal legal system, you have to think about what happened to their children, what about their lost revenue, what about the issues of family disruption, and what are those costs to our society?” —Sheryl Kubiak, Wayne State University School of Social Work

Administrators at the university believe that the holistic approach will spur criminal justice reforms and inspire change in their community.  


Listen: How the pilot program takes a holistic approach to address individuals’ legal and social needs.

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Dan Ellman is an externship professor at the Wayne State University Law School. “When people become enmeshed in the criminal justice system, they face a lot of consequences,” Ellman says. For some individuals, he explains, these consequences can include the deprivation of employment, parental rights and housing. 

The pilot program has partnered with four organizations to provide holistic legal defense to clients. Ellman explains that each organization is doing different work, but they are all taking a holistic approach. Students in the program will address multiple issues, including sentencing mitigation, connection to treatment services, re-entry work, improving access to court records and more. “All [organizations] involve this idea of getting people back on their feet, back to being able to contribute to society in a productive — rather than punitive — way,” he says.

Sheryl Kubiak is the dean of the Wayne State University School of Social Work. Kubiak says interdisciplinary partnerships are often fraught with misunderstandings about objectives. “In these offices, we hope to produce lawyers and social workers who are used to working together,” Kubiak says. 

Though this initiative may prove to be costly, Kubiak says it is a necessary investment to improve the livelihood of citizens. She explains, ”When you look at the unintended consequences of an individual who goes further and further into the criminal legal system, you have to think about what happened to their children, what about their lost revenue, what about the issues of family disruption, and what are those costs to our society?” 

Web post written by Molly Ryan

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