Reimagining Law: Providing Holistic Representation to Clients

In this episode of Reimagining Law, we talk to Emelia Carroll, Criminal Defense Staff Attorney, Cabrini Green Legal Aid, and Emma Kunin (LSW), Social Worker, Cabrini Green Legal Aid. Emelia and Emma explain how a holistic approach to legal representation that includes both attorneys and social workers can lead to more favorable outcomes and reduce recidivism for clients. Their approach aims to address the root causes of their clients’ criminal history, such as mental health challenges and poverty.

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00:39 What is holistic justice? Walk us through what it looks like in a case.

02:45 When you speak with prosecutors, how do you incorporate holistic service?

04:23 Have you seen this holistic approach change client outcomes?

05:27 Are there comparisons to this model and the model we’re seeing being implemented by police departments, i.e., sending a social worker with an officer on calls dealing with mental illness?

06:50 How does working with a social worker make attorneys more effective?

08:20 How does working with lawyers impact the work that social workers do?

09:30 Do you have anything else to add about the holistic approach to justice?

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About Emelia Carroll

Emelia Carroll is the Criminal Defense Staff Attorney with Cabrini Green Legal Aid where she represents people experiencing poverty who are charged with crimes in Cook County. Emelia also serves as Prison Review Board appointed counsel for parole revocation cases in Cook County. She majored in Philosophy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN where she developed a fascination with society’s justifications for criminal punishment and legal advocacy for people experiencing poverty. She ultimately moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. As a law student, she interned with the Children & Family Justice Center at Northwestern’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, the Cook County Public Defender, Northside Transformative Law Center, and the Colorado State Public Defender. After earning her J.D. in 2019, she started her legal career as an Assistant Public Defender in rural Colorado and moved back to Chicago in the wake of the national uprising for racial equity in April 2021.

About Emma Kunin

Throughout Emma’s social work career and after graduating from Jane Adams as an M.S.W., she has demonstrated her commitment to advocating for youth and families in Chicago. Her experience working with adolescents in Chicago Public Schools and with the formerly incarcerated emerging-adult population allowed her the opportunity to connect closely with clients, school systems, courts, housing agencies, departments of juvenile justice to reduce recidivism and improve youth functioning through collaborative family-focused initiatives. She has gained knowledge in community advocacy and in supporting families who have lost loved ones from gun violence.

This interview was recorded on January 19, 2022.


Stephanie Villinski 0:07 

Hi, I’m Stephanie Villinski, Deputy Director at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. Welcome to Reimagining Law. I’m joined today by Emelia Carroll, staff attorney, and Emma Kunin, social worker, both from Cabrini Green Legal Aid. They work in a collaborative interdisciplinary model of legal services and social services to bring about the best outcome for clients. Emelia and Emma, thank you so much for joining me today.

Emma Kunin 0:34 

Thanks for having us, Stephanie.

Emelia Carroll 0:37 

Happy to be here.

Stephanie Villinski 0:39 

Emelia, why don’t we start with you? What is holistic justice? And can you walk me through what that looks like in a case?

Emelia Carroll 0:51 

Coming from the perspective of somebody who used to work in more of a public defender’s office setting, the courtroom is a space that’s supposed to be meting out justice. And oftentimes, somebody who’s charged with a crime, and what they did and who they are, is presented to the court through the narrative or through the lens of the police report—and any other evidence, but it’s primarily going to be from what the police gathered in their investigation. That’s really the prosecutor’s conception of who that person is. They make their decisions with their discretion based on that narrative. The judge hears bits and pieces at different stages of what those facts are, again, driven by the police report. And it is not really a holistic form of justice, because it’s looking at a single incident through a single lens. The concept of holistic justice broadens that: the perspective on this human being. And all human beings deserve to be understood through many different perspectives. As we are all complex people, we deserve to be understood as complex people. People deserve to have their context heard and understood—their community context, as well as their individual context, their personal histories, their traumas, and their aspirations. All of the pieces of who they are that’s connected to history and connected to community and connected to all kinds of forces in our society, which deserves to be part of what’s considered in that narrative, so it’s not just the police arrest report.

Stephanie Villinski 2:45 

When you talk with the prosecutor, how then do you bring about that kind of holistic service?

Emelia Carroll 2:59 

When it comes to the holistic service to our client, it’s not just me giving them legal advice on, “What are your charges? What are the elements? If we went to trial, what is what are the potential penalties? What are the potential collateral consequences?” It’s also understanding the root cause really of why they have been charged, and basically, trying to address those needs in a bigger way. And then when it comes to translating that to engaging with the prosecution, sometimes it’s in the form of long conversation, sometimes it’s in the form of really long letters from me and myself. And from Emma, sometimes it’s testimonials from the community members in my clients’ lives. Sometimes it’s a documentary that we put together, where we interview people in our clients’ lives and our clients to tell their story so that their voice is heard. And sometimes it’s asking a client who’s musically inclined to make a song about their experience, and then that’s shared with the prosecutor. The holistic service is really for our client and then we also try to find creative ways to present that fuller picture to the prosecutor.

Stephanie Villinski 4:23 

Emma, how have you seen this holistic model affect the outcome for a client?

Emma Kunin 4:36 

I’ve definitely seen it improve client outcomes. With holistic justice, it’s a client-centered approach. So, we’re helping the individual navigate the legal system, but we’re also trying to address the root causes of the issue. If the client has instability in areas of their life, like employment, mental health, paying their rent, not having health care, we are trying to help them gain support and understand that context and background of the problem so they can overcome it and move on. That’s how we develop their treatment plans. It’s not just about addressing those goals but reducing recidivism in the end. We address that by identifying what on barriers is the client face and how we overcome those barriers for success.

Stephanie Villinski 5:27 

Are there comparisons to this model in those that we’re starting to see being implemented by police departments, like bringing in a social worker when a police officer goes to a call?

Emelia Carroll 5:45 

Most people’s involvement in the criminal system starts with a police encounter. Rather than having to push off getting that broader context on a person until they’ve already been arrested, sat in jail, bonded out, and then finally had an opportunity for defense counsel and social worker to talk to the prosecutor, having a social work perspective immediately will make it be taken seriously. It will probably change how often police are choosing to make arrests, and what kind of charges their choosing to use as their explanation for the arrest, and what about the narrative gets presented initially to the courts. It would probably change a lot and be more efficient, ultimately, as well as just being more humane.

Stephanie Villinski 6:50 

Emelia, why should attorneys think about using this holistic model in their in their work?

Emelia Carroll 7:00 

Lawyers have certain expertise. But a lot of times because we’re actors in a court system, and our training really is to focus on legal issues and legal outcomes, we have blind spots. To have a teammate that has a different training and can see different issues that might be under the surface—it’s invaluable. As an example, when I’m trying to find out why a client is repeatedly violating their curfew, which is a condition of their bond, I may hit communication barriers. There are all kinds of different reasons why we might be having those communication barriers and Emma may be able to say “You’re probably not thinking about the different ways that poverty creates barriers for people and creates logistical problems that might lead to curfew violations.” Her perspective is an answer to questions that I just don’t have the training to think about.

Stephanie Villinski 8:20 

Emma, as a social worker, how does working with attorneys impact your work?

Emma Kunin 8:30 

We do a biological, psychosocial assessment on the client at intake and evaluate them on what relevant factors might be contributing to the client’s history and mental state. We know that a third of the Cook County jail and prison populations have mental health diagnoses or co-occurring disorders, like substance use diagnosis. We work along with the attorneys to address the root causes, and oftentimes, the root causes of criminal justice involve mental health. My goal in the end is to reduce recidivism for vulnerable populations and working with attorneys allows us to actually communicate with the court and get those legal outcomes and advocacy that we strive for.

Stephanie Villinski 9:30 

Thank you. Do you do you have anything else to add?

Emelia Carroll 9:38 

Generally speaking, when we as attorneys get good outcomes, we do a disservice to our clients if they come out of our representation of them not any better off or any less likely to be found in a similar situation than they were when we started with them. I think that we truly take a client-centered approach seriously, not to count our victories in a legal sense, but really pay attention to our clients as people. I think attorneys should consider if you don’t have the bandwidth to work with a social worker, to just at least start thinking about ways to incorporate that more human perspective.

Stephanie Villinski 10:36 

Well, thank you for giving us a lot to think about today. And thank you both for joining me. Please go ahead and like and share this video and subscribe to our channel to stay up to date on new episodes. Information on how to stay connected with both the commission and Cabrini Green Legal Aid is in the notes. Thank you so much for watching and stay well.

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One thought on “Reimagining Law: Providing Holistic Representation to Clients

  1. Great work and very insightful dialogue! I especially appreciate the idea that achieving a legal victory is not enough and that we have to do more by using a holistic social approach to truly make a lasting positive impact. Thank you Emelia, Emma, Stephanie and CGLA!

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