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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egolterman topcommenter

And in this downtown nearly $400 million is being spent to add a couple of miles of walk, and bike paths up to the Arch, the Cardinals owners are doubling their profits with Ballpark Village and this is after the Art Museum spent $170 million for an add-on which includes a huge parking-for-pay garage. Some young lawyers would do a lot more for the poor and veterans and the homeless by filing suit against the perps who do such deals.

frankd4 topcommenter

.................and as for the BLACK / WHITE comments here,  i simply do not see the relevance when related to the economics because it has been long ago established that EDUCATION is the answer to ones future success in life (however that person defines the success that sustains them)

...............and any reference to founding fathers must include the fact that they were, in the end, all POLITICIANs, and to various degrees, with all the faux sincerity and self-agrandizing attitude that comes naturally with that pursuit, in it for themselves first - the only real heros are the ones that died in battle = period

frankd4 topcommenter

.................... "holistic advocacy"  misses the point that there is a industrial judicial complex that depends on these issues to exist so that judges retirement plans can be funded and LEOs overtime readily available so LEOs may remain current on their boat payments and the local politicians can offer their favors to build prisons and courthouses to their construction contracting cronies for kick-backs and bribes and of course there is the entire legal professionals fees from billable hours that grease the wheels of justice here in america (and of course even wall street has a hand in taking prisons public to the investing crowd)

just as we need to incite trouble around the world to keep an industrial military complex humming we need to have hobos and vagrants and miscreants being pursued and prosecuted for being poor and disenfranchised

this country gave up any claim to charity when we killed of an entire nation of indigenous peoples who were already here for thousands of years,  wiping out all trace of their language and custom and tradition - if we could make a buck from them by charging admission in a museum maybe a few would have survived intact

but luckily the poor offer so many sources of revenue and benefits for the industrial judicial system america will keep them around for a while so long as their utility remains profitable


First, KUDOS to RFT’s Ray Downs for a splendid story of true Super-Heroes – the ArchCity Defenders who operate here in St. Louis on behalf of the downtrodden – the homeless, in particular, which includes veterans. BTW--LOVE the RFT cover – it would make Stan Lee proud.

I have to say, for legal professionals who could be doing so many other things – but choose to defend the disadvantaged vs. a justice system that ostracizes and penalizes those caught in the system – well, you’re the BEST.You show that indeed – and in deed -- there is hope & humanity where, prior to your arrival, there was confusion, frustration and desperation.

@JamesMadison or whatever your name is – solving the “real problem” starts at ground level where the pain is.Ray Down’s brilliant exposé here is the sort of investigative journalism that flushes out the real problem – and he’s discovered many.A flip remark like yours suggests that the ArchDefenders might be part of the problem because they’re not solving the problem you failed to define.

Hats off to the ArchDefenders because you are SuperHeroes and, in my view, true Knights in Shining Armor taking on the dragons in a system that feeds on the downtrodden.Godspeed you and your important work at ground-level where the problems have festered

DonkeyHotay topcommenter


          When poverty is outlawed, only outlaws will be poor.

JamesMadison topcommenter

It is good that someone will defend those being arrested for being poor, but the real problem is a city ordinance and a justice system that decides to fine those who do not have money. Offer them a day's work to pay off some of their fines. Clean the streets and sidewalks. Pull weeds. Find something for them to do other than constantly returning to court and telling the judge they cannot pay their fine - A fine levied against them mainly due to them being poor.

A superhero does not just keep doing the same thing over and over. They solve the real problem. That is my definition of a superhero.

JamesMadison topcommenter

@DonkeyHotay, the the writer of our Constitution and freedoms. But less importantly. A middle name and a mother's maiden name for a bit of fun. Get a life. Stop living 240 years ago. The present is much more exciting. And playground bullying of making fun of names is so-so childish, well, you're making an ass of yourself for doing so. ;)

DonkeyHotay topcommenter


I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

-- Abraham Lincoln

JamesMadison topcommenter

@DonkeyHotay, he did write the framework for their freedoms. Many slave owners did not care for the system, but it was the way of life at the time. Before slavery could be abolished, the owners had to be free of their English king. The slaves were freed later, but in historical terms, not all that much longer - less than four scores after the US constitution was adopted. Early compromise made it possible for a nation to reject slavery at a later date.

I am happy you can reflect back over two hundred years, and place your 21st century condemnation upon men who were trying to free themselves first. The benefit of hindsight is never to be underestimated in a smug and righteous attitude.

Without slave owners like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, you would be kneeling to a king, not living in a republic. Great men are not perfect, but merely humans born into their times and customs.

DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@JamesMadison ... he didn't write any "freedoms" for the Negro slaves he abused, bought, sold and fornicated with ... now did he?

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