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Teamwork and tangible gestures: Holistic defense at BxD

Three weeks into her summer internship at a Bronx legal services nonprofit, Human Rights Center fellow Kony Kim describes the organization's attempt to address the broad spectrum of social services its clients need.

NEW YORK CITY — Now starting week four of my internship, I’m gaining a sense of the Bronx Defenders’ internal culture — how its mission translates into daily practice, and how its various pieces interact to protect a wide array of human rights.

Student Journal: Summer dispatches from the fieldEach year the UC Berkeley-based Human Rights Center awards summer fellowships to students from University of California campuses, to enable them to work with human-rights organizations in the U.S. and abroad. Several current Human Rights Fellows, including law student Kony Kim, have agreed to share their experiences this summer, with regular updates from the field to be published on the NewsCenter.

Kony KimKony Kim on justice alternatives in the South Bronx

  1. Why NYC: Taking the train and pursuing justice
  2. Teamwork and tangible gestures: Holistic defense at BxD
  3. Defense vs. dialogue: Restorative justice at BxD?
  4. Community intake: bite-sized empathy at BxD
  5. Drawn to a career softer and subtler than law, but driven to deal with injustice in the world
  6. Quality time vs. constant crisis: Artwork and legal work as two prongs of human rights practice
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BxD’s main task is public defense: free legal representation of people who face criminal charges but can’t afford a lawyer. In many ways, a BxD criminal attorney’s daily work resembles that of any other public defender: discussing pleas with new arrestees, bargaining with prosecutors, arguing before judges, tracking down witnesses, coaching clients through trial.

But a BxD attorney also has a larger mission, and accordingly works with a broad array of teammates. Since criminal cases in the Bronx often arise in the context of interlocking problems — addiction, mental illness, joblessness, precarious immigration status — BxD’s overarching goal is to provide seamless access to the spectrum of services its clients need.

So, while a typical public defender office focuses narrowly on criminal cases, BxD yokes each criminal attorney to a team of civil attorneys (specialists in family, immigration, and housing law), as well as to social workers, investigators, and community organizers. Teammates jointly identify each client’s diverse needs, share information, and alert judges to unexpected ways that a criminal conviction can ruin a person’s life. For example, if convicted for the simple possession of weed, a person might become deportable, evictable, unhireable, and subject to loss of child custody. By flagging such risks, BxD attorneys enable clients to make informed choices and help judges understand the consequences of their rulings.

Another BxD characteristic: attorney-client affection is freely, tangibly expressed. BxD attorneys aren’t afraid to back-pat, hand-hold, and shoulder-squeeze their clients. In fact, BxD is known among judges, prosecutors, and court officers in the Bronx as “that pack of touchy public defenders.” Of course, this hardly fazes anyone at BxD, where connections with clients are as prized as reputations for professional excellence.

About Kony Kim

Kony Kim

A J.D. and PhD. student at Berkeley Law, Kony Kim aspires to pursue her passions for art and storytelling to become what she calls a “writer-artist-advocate.” The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she received her B.A. in philosophy from Yale (2003) and her M.A. in theological studies at Westminster Seminary (2006). While completing coursework in Berkeley Law’s Jurisprudence & Social Policy program, she was inspired by her volunteer work with asylum seekers to focus on refugee rights advocacy, and by her interactions with prison inmates to investigate alternative justice models.

Kim will spend the summer as a legal intern for the Bronx Defenders, which provides legal advocacy and services in one of the country’s poorest neighborhoods. Through participant observation, she will research how the organization makes use of “restorative justice,” an approach to crime that seeks to involve all affected parties in repairing the harms done.