For decades, public defenders felt like they were yelling into the void. They raised issues, they fought for them, and they were proud of their victories. All the while, they knew that in order to deliver true, meaningful justice, they could not do it alone. They needed partners.
The New York Giants became one of them, adding another drop in the bucket that they hope someday tips over.
"We need partners from every corner of this city, we need partners from every corner of our society, all industries, all disciplines," said Justine Olderman, executive director of The Bronx Defenders, a public defender nonprofit radically transforming how low-income people in the Bronx are represented in the justice system. "And when I think about the Giants – I grew up in Brooklyn – the Giants are a huge part of New York City and its culture [with their] broad platform and fan base. The truth is it just allows us to reach people we normally would never have the opportunity to speak to."
Olderman recently joined linebacker Blake Martinez and offensive tackle Matt Peart for a discussion on the joint work between the two organizations in the past, present and future. Former Giants wide receiver and Super Bowl champion Victor Cruz moderated the event as part of the "Team of Teams" initiative.
During an unprecedented offseason, players and coaches split themselves into nine groups, each one paired with an organization in a dedicated region within New York and New Jersey. These community partners have a focus on racial injustice, criminal justice reform, education and economic advancement, police-community relations, and voter registration.
While serving as a co-captain for the defense on the field, Martinez also chairs an 11-member team (eight players, three coaches) focused on police reform and youth and family support.
"We talked about, hey, as a group we want to help change this thing, but we also want to be educated in all aspects of what's going on, what's the reason behind why these things have happened for so long and why haven't they been corrected or why is it so hard to correct them," Martinez said. "Once we came together as a group knowing those types of things are what we individually wanted to know, we wanted to also talk about what as a group do you want to have an effect on. Once we figured that out, we said we wanted to be a part of the community, be a part of families, and figure out what they're going through, how we can be helpful in that environment and for those people. Then also learn more about the police reform and how we can also get that turned in the right direction."
That's where The Bronx Defenders came in.
They are pioneers of a ground-breaking, nationally recognized model called "holistic defense" that achieves better outcomes for their clients. Each year, they defend 27,000 low-income Bronx residents in criminal, civil, child welfare, and immigration cases, while reaching thousands more through their community intake and outreach programs.
"Traditional public defender offices work really hard to represent somebody in their particular legal matter," Olderman said. "Let's take a criminal case, they're going to go out and they're going to do investigations, they're going to talk to witnesses, they're going to research the law, and they're going to present the best legal defense that they can. At The Bronx Defenders, we do that too, but we do more than that. We work to address the drivers of system involvement and also the consequences."
Those consequences are the ones that reach beyond courthouse walls, including evictions, child welfare and deportation.
"What we did was we set out to create a new model of public defense called 'holistic defense', where we represent the whole client," Olderman said. "We go wherever our client needs to go. So if that criminal case leads to a housing case, we're not only going to defend them in criminal court; we're also going to defend them in housing court. We're going to go to immigration court. We're going to go to family court. We're going to try to mitigate the harm of that system involvement."
The cause hits close to home for Peart, whose mother, Faith, teaches third graders in the South Bronx. Peart, a rookie third-round draft pick, was born in Jamaica and moved to the United States with his family in 2002. They settled in the Bronx.
"Some of the things that we were talking about, she's currently facing them right now being a third-grade schoolteacher in the South Bronx, actually," Peart said. "Just hearing her experiences and hearing what The Bronx Defenders do or what people in line with what the Bronx Defenders are doing, just fighting those problems, it's an amazing overall experience."
Peart added, "I'm living my dream playing for my favorite team that I grew up watching as a kid. It's awesome. It's been an amazing experience, and it's just awesome being able to work with The Bronx Defenders, me being a guy from the Bronx. Growing up there and just being able to work with an organization that's focused on making that borough a better place is awesome. The Bronx is just a big starting point for a lot of cultures that we see now today."
The Giants' partnership with The Bronx Defenders goes back years. In 2018, players learned firsthand about pre-trial justice and the bail process by visiting Bronx Criminal Court and the Vernon C. Bain Center, a jail barge known as "The Boat" holding hundreds of inmates awaiting trial.
"I've got to say it's been really thrilling, really thrilling, for us to have this partnership," Olderman said. "It's incredibly important to our work. … We've been raising issues around police brutality and family separation and immigration detention and the housing crisis. I'm really proud of the work that we've done and the victories we've had – there are studies that show our holistic defense model reduces incarceration rates by 16 percent, [length of incarceration] by 24 percent and that's work we're really proud of, but we also are aware that if we want to deliver true, meaningful justice for the people that we serve, there's no way we can do it alone.
"Already we have seen that the Giants players have immersed themselves -- like Blake and Matt -- in the work, in the issues that our clients face, they've talked to the people we serve, they talk to community members, they talk to the young people we're mentoring, and they are using their voice and platform to raise awareness and to advocate for change. And we have already seen tremendous impact in our partnership. It excites me to think about what possibilities lay ahead for us."
The following is a list of the Giants' learning experiences through The Bronx Defenders:
- Met Mubaraq Alli and learned about his experience as an intern with the Bronx Defenders as a recipient of one of the Giants Touchdown Fellowships.
- Listened to the Bronx Defenders policy team and community organizing team to understand their roles in advancing local reforms.
- Spoke with the lawyer representing Ousman Darboe in his immigration case and requesting his release from ICE detention.
- Martinez spoke personally with Ousman Darboe, and several members of the group submitted a letter on his behalf to encourage his release on bond following three years of ICE detention.
"It was one of those moments when you kind of get something brought in front of you that's extremely meaningful but also has a lot of weight to it," Martinez said. "For me, being able to take that step forward but also take that step back to have that conversation with him, to make sure that I was backing somebody that knew the meaning behind all this. Once I had that conversation with Ousman, it was incredible the type of knowledge that he had, the growing process that he had and how grateful he was for just even one person to back him. Just to be able to be a part of that, to be able to see how he's going to be moving forward, be a part of his life, part of his growth as a person, the ability for him to be on bail to go see his family, his daughter … it was just an incredible moment to see that the other day come full circle."
- Learned about the "Driven By Justice" driver's license suspension reform act, which disproportionately impacts people of color.
- Met virtually with the Robert J. Patterson Jr. mentorship program for Black and Latinx youth from the Bronx.
- Met with Assemblyman Michael Blake of the 79th assembly district in the Bronx about police-community relations and community resources.
- Met with the founders of the Bronx Community Foundation to learn about their mission and efforts to support the community during COVID.
- Learned about recent reforms to New York State law pertaining to policing, including the repeal of 50-A, which prevented transparency by barring public access to disciplinary records of police, fire and corrections employees.
What they plan to do:
- Continue to learn from Bronx Defenders about their work, and share those learnings with our fanbase
- Support the Bronx Defenders in advocating for continued meaningful policy reforms
- Support the Bronx Defenders in their upcoming fundraiser event
- Support the Bronx Community Foundation and bring meaningful resources to the community