A New Study on Public Defense Well-Being: The Stress of Injustice

A new study of public defenders was published on Dec. 12, 2020, entitled The Stress of Injustice: Public Defenders and the Frontline of American Inequality, by Baćak, Valerio and Lageson, Sarah and Powell, Kathleen. It is summarized by The Crime Report in Public Defenders Suffer From the ‘Stress of Injustice’: Study (Jan. 26, 2021).

Both the article summary and the study itself are worth reading, offering perhaps the first study I’ve seen that examines the problem at the systemic level and offers systemic solutions. That’s right, not a single mention of curing everything with yoga and lavender oil—both of which I appreciate for helping me cope with the symptoms of job stress, while I understand that systemic solutions are needed to address the causes of that chronic job stress.

Using semi-structured interviews, these researchers at Rutgers University and Drexel University applied a series of tools to assess the “social and psychological demands of working in a punitive system with laws and practices that target and punish those who are the most disadvantaged” to a sample of 87 public defenders across the United States.

They found three “major stressors” of injustice that affected the emotional health of those practicing indigent defense just as definitively as the individuals they defended:

(1)    penal excess

(2)    economic divestment and 

(3)    the criminalization of mental illness.

While the researchers said their study was not designed to suggest policy, they noted their findings implied approaches that could mitigate public defenders’ occupational stress. Possible approaches included:

(1)    Increase funding for public defenders;

(2)    Provide assistance with secondary trauma as soon as an attorney starts a job;

(3)    Introduce workplace interventions for overworked attorneys to reduce occupational stress;

(4) Educate young attorneys about stress management early in their careers, or even in law school.

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