The Morning Call (Sunday)
‘Client advocate’ getting results
Social workers play larger role in criminal justice system
It was four days before Christmas and a woman who was locked up at the Lehigh County Jail learned that her bail had been reduced. All she had to do was prove that she had a place to live, and she was good to go.
Unable to get a family member on the phone, and without the documents she needed to show jail staff that she’d have a verifiable address, the woman was stuck. She reached out to her lawyers in the Lehigh County public defender’s office, asking for help.
In what is a growing trend in the criminal justice system, a lawyer didn’t arrive to help the woman. A social worker did.
“I was able to make a few calls and get her situation straightened out,” said Michael Pizzingrilli, a social worker who joined the office as a client advocate in early 2020. “She was very appreciative. In a few hours she went from not knowing what was
going to happen to her, to getting ready to leave the jail by the end of the day.”
Hired as part of Chief Public Defender Kimberly Makoul’s effort to provide a “holistic” defense for her office’s indigent clients, Pizzingrilli combines his experience from years working in social services to address problems that often lead people to commit crimes, including homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness.
On a typical day, Pizzingrilli makes dozens of phone calls to social service agencies to set up appointments for defendants, and coordinates inmates’ release times to jibe with his schedule so he can be there when they get out.
If a defendant is unsure how to get to a bus station or homeless shelter, Pizzingrilli will walk with them to their destination. He knows who to call when a defendant needs clothes, food or medicine.
Pizzingrilli’s work helps defendants stay on track, Makoul said, and lets their attorneys concentrate on fighting for them in court.
“We’re lawyers. We’re there to address our clients’ legal issues,” she said. “But if you don’t look at the greater causes for why they’re in the criminal justice system, the underlying causes, then you’re really not addressing their problem.”
Having a social worker on staff has been so effective that Makoul plans to hire another in 2021. Thoughit’s too soon to knowhow the extra support Pizzingrilli gives defendants has affected rates of recidivism among people represented by a public defender in Lehigh County, Makoul said her staff reports clients are missing fewer meetings, and more are keeping up with post-sentence requirements such as attending counseling sessions and paying court costs.
“Our work with them doesn’t end when court is over. As long as they’re on supervision [such as probation or parole], we’re involved. For some of them, just knowing that there is someone they can call when they’re having difficulties makes the difference,” she said.
The holistic defense movement got its start in the Bronx public defender’s office in the 1990s, and has spread to many public defenders’ offices, including Bucks County, which has one social worker on staff and plans to add another soon, said Chief Public Defender Ann Russavage-Faust. Luzerne County’s public defender’s office also employs social workers.
Social service professionals can help defendants who frequently reoffend break the cycle. A 2018 study by the nonprofit Rand Corp. and the University of Pennsylvania Law School found that defendants who were offered holistic services were about 16% less likely to return to jail.
The researchers, who looked at 587,000 New York cases spanning 2000through 2007 and 2012 through 2014, found that defendants who had access to a social worker served sentences that were 24% shorter than people who didn’t get extra support. The Rand study concluded that holistic defense saved New York taxpayers $165 million in incarceration costs over 10 years.
Social workers have been taking a more active role in the criminal justice system in recent years, with calls for law enforcement agencies to add them to their staff intensifying since the killing of George Floyd by police in May, followed by several high profile shootings of mentally unstable people by police.
Last month, Bucks County officials announced a two-year, $400,000 pilot program that will pair social workers with police officers during mental health-related incidents in Bensalem, the township with the county’s largest police department.
Social workers in the program will assist police officers in dealing with mental health, domestic violence and substance-abuse calls, riding along with police in certain situations. County officials said the goal is to divert appropriate cases away from arrests and instead connect people with services such as housing programs, youth counseling and drug rehabilitation.
After two years, data on the program will be studied to determine whether it is effective and should be expanded. There are similar programs in Philadelphia and other large cities, but none in the Lehigh Valley at this time.
In Lehigh County, there are numerous social service agencies available to help vulnerable defendants, Makoul noted, but navigating the system is difficult. This year, she hopes to restructure the process that new public defender clients go though, making a social worker one of their first contacts. That way, by the time they stand before a judge, they can show that they’re taking steps to change.
Pizzigrilli, who worked for Northampton County Children & Youth and several other social service organizations before joining the public defender’s office, was a perfect fit for the role, Makoul said.
“Mike has the experience and contacts. What he’s doing helps people, and in court, it shows.”