The Role of Knox County’s Public Defender
Frequently Asked Questions
A public defender is an attorney assigned to represent indigent (impoverished) clients who have been charged with crimes and cannot afford to hire a private attorney, a right established by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The elected office of Public Defender oversees a staff of potentially dozens of these attorneys, coordinating efforts across the office.
In the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office, there are 27 attorneys, as well as a team of social workers, investigators, and support staff.
The Community Law Office aims to serve Knox County as a whole by providing a holistic approach to its clients. In doing so, it meets the goal of reducing the frequency of arrests as well as the length of incarceration, thereby serving the cause of justice, reducing the fiscal burden on the Knox County judicial and jail systems, fostering self-reliance and responsibility in its clients, and providing services to those in need.
In recent years, there has been growing recognition within the legal community that issues like mental health and poverty have a heavy contributing impact on who ends up facing criminal charges. The holistic approach was developed in order to pair defendants in need with relevant social workers and other advocates who will work with them not only for the duration of the case, but also afterwards, regardless of the outcome, allowing them access to alcohol and drug abuse treatment programs, housing and food, and mental health professionals. By addressing the domestic and socioeconomic circumstances of clients, in addition to their criminal charges, the holistic approach improves their outcomes, thus helping them provide for their own families and enrich our communities.
The holistic approach was first put into effect in 2003 under the guidance of Public Defender Mark Stephens, after he attended a conference sponsored by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Research shows that clients who have received assistance from social workers have lower rates of recidivism (repeat offenses) and are better able to live as productive members of their communities. An analysis of the effectiveness of the holistic approach has shown that reduced recidivism in misdemeanor cases has saved taxpayers $1.7 million a year.
Approximately half of the funding comes from the State and half comes from Knox County.
In addition to providing aid to those accused, the Community Law Office offers free legal clinics, assistance to homeless individuals, and a variety of youth programs designed to combat the early risk factors that contribute to criminal behavior.