In 2009 Harvey worked as a legal intern at the criminal-defense clinic operated through the Saint Louis University School of Law. Part of his job was to work the intake desk, and it was there that he noticed a problem.

"I know who you are," barked the judge. "You're the ones taking money out of my pocket."

"I saw a lot of poor people who had mental-health problems and substance-abuse problems who weren't getting any of those services while they were waiting in jail to get a lawyer," Harvey says. "On its best day, the public defender gets the person's case dismissed, but that person still needs additional services to get on with his or her life."

It was a wake-up call to the law student. Even with adequate legal assistance, if people didn't get help addressing their underlying issues, they'd likely be back at the intake desk within a few days or weeks.

Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, came up with the idea for the group when he was a SLU law student.
Eric Fogleman
Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, came up with the idea for the group when he was a SLU law student.
Michael-John Voss has many clients who have been severely affected by simple 
traffic tickets.
Eric Fogleman
Michael-John Voss has many clients who have been severely affected by simple traffic tickets.

While Harvey witnessed this problem on the criminal side, his law-school classmates — McAnnar and Voss — were seeing a similar pattern during their internships working in civil law.

"Many municipalities depend on ticket revenue. And when rich people get tickets, they hire a lawyer who gets it turned into a nonmoving violation, and that person pays a larger fine but doesn't get points on their license," says McAnnar.

Voss adds: "And when poor people get tickets, they can't pay, so they go to court six months in a row, make monthly payments, maybe $50 if they have it. But if they miss a payment, a warrant is issued, their fines go up, and that person gets into a hole."

For the three SLU law students, seeing poor people get slapped with fines that inevitably snowballed into other problems made them want to do something. What or how wasn't exactly clear.

Harvey says he got the basic concept for ArchCity Defenders the way most people find things these days. He did a quick Google search of what he wanted to do and came across the name Robin Steinberg.

Steinberg, a New York attorney, founded Bronx Defenders in 1997. Today it is considered the nation's first holistic-defense organization and is part of the New York City public-defense system. If a criminal defendant in the Bronx qualifies for legal aid, they get an attorney from Bronx Defenders. With a large staff of attorneys and social workers (as well as relationships with social-services organizations throughout the city), the agency can then streamline the process of getting its clients the help they need and keep them out of jail for low-level offenses.

"This model doesn't cost more per case than a defender here in New York that's doing the work in a very traditional way," Steinberg says. "It's just a matter of how you allocate your money, where the resources go and how creative you become in terms of figuring out ways to harness the resources you need for your client."

Without addressing those needs, whether it's poverty, mental illness and addiction, or heavy-handed policing in poor areas, Steinberg says the cycle will continue and simply increase economic and societal costs.

"Public defenders are the least expensive part of the criminal-justice system. So if you're looking at the system, in any jurisdiction, you need to look at the overreliance on jails and begin to look at alternatives to that," says Steinberg.

A conversation with Steinberg helped Harvey and his law-school friends identify what they wanted to do, but they lacked the money to start it. After graduation, Voss and McAnnar accepted jobs at corporate law firms in St. Louis while Harvey hung his own shingle as a criminal-defense lawyer. Still, they never forgot their idea, and when McAnnar was briefly furloughed from his firm as a result of the recession, he set about getting ArchCity Defenders established as an official nonprofit.

"We took on cases whenever we could," Harvey recalls of those initial days in 2009. "I had more flexibility because I had my own practice, but we all made time. When somebody calls you from jail and they need to get out, you make time."

For nearly three years the three men ran and funded ArchCity Defenders mainly on their own, but they got a little help, too. Volunteer attorneys believed in the mission and offered services. Law students saw it as a great learning opportunity. And Voss' employers at Reinert Weishaar & Associates liked the idea so much that they donated some sleek and stylish office space just off the cobblestone streets of Laclede's Landing.

But it wasn't until 2013 when Mayor Francis Slay ramped up his campaign to end homelessness in St. Louis that ArchCity Defenders was able to fully devote itself to the holistic-defense model.

The mayor's BEACH Project (the Beginning of the End: Abolishing Chronic Homelessness) aims to assist chronically homeless people within St. Louis by providing them jobs and places to live. These people, by definition, have experienced repeated or long-term homelessness and have a disability. They also tend to have legal issues, such as warrants, for which free legal counsel is off-limits or unavailable.

In St. Louis, the federally funded Legal Services of Eastern Missouri can, by law, only assist the poor with civil cases. Meanwhile, the public-defense system can help people with outstanding municipal warrants in theory, but the financial reality makes that impossible to do.

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