A first-ever social worker program in San Mateo County to help defendants and their attorneys navigate critically needed services kicked off last month, the Private Defender Program's office said in a statement.
Harpreet Samra, a licensed clinical social worker who most recently worked for the Santa Clara Public Defender’s Office, heads the program as supervising social worker. Samra has eight years of experience as a social worker in public defender offices working with adults and juveniles.
She is expected to hire as many as 10 contracted social workers to assist defense attorneys as part of the defense team, Lisa Maguire, chief defender, said by phone recently.
"It's a brand new position and we're very excited about it," she said.
Social workers can help defendants be evaluated and receive services for issues that may have contributed to their alleged crimes, including substance abuse, homelessness, joblessness and mental health.
Social workers have been working with criminal defense attorneys since the 1970s and are considered critical to a "holistic" defense model, Maguire said. Research literature has shown social workers have been beneficial to both clients and lawyers.
A report by the Brennan Center for Justice found that adding social support for defendants can reduce recidivism and costs, she said. It can also improve community safety when defendants find effective interventions such as mental health services, substance abuse counseling or job training.
The chances that people will reintegrate into their communities and not commit repeat offenses also increase, Maguire said, which in turn saves costs on law enforcement, courts, prosecutors, defenders and corrections.
Social workers in the state of Kentucky's program saved the state $3.25 in criminal justice costs for every $1 in social worker salaries, she said.
"Anecdotally, 30% to 40% of clients have mental health needs. It's significant," Maguire said. “Year after year, we are seeing an increase in clients who have mental health and substance abuse issues. We want to help our clients get the treatment they need. I think this is a great step for the private defender (program) and the benefits will be apparent in a short period of time.”
Understanding clients' needs can also help guide their defense attorney's approach. Attorneys had been asking social and mental health professionals for assistance with their cases, but a number of professionals were saying they didn't want to be involved and didn't want to become expert witnesses, she said. Hiring dedicated staff to work with the defenders' office would eliminate that problem.
"A lot of people don't like talking to lawyers. It makes them uncomfortable," Maguire said.
Attorneys are not trained to assess the psychological and social needs of their clients. A social worker can navigate those sensitive subjects, suggest treatment plans and assist with things like housing and Social Security, she said.
Having a dedicated team of social workers would have a large impact toward starting to make such programs the norm. Maguire said the private defender program, which provides legal representation to defendants who cannot afford to hire an attorney, has occasionally used social workers to assist with complex cases in the past. Other Bay Area defender programs already have social workers on staff, including Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco and Marin counties, she said.