A week into the job, Robin Steinberg and her staff are already paying house calls.
It is not typical for attorneys, but Steinberg’s team does not practice a typical approach.
Rather, the Still She Rises team is one of the only nonprofit law offices in the country — if not the only — that is dedicated exclusively to representing mothers in the criminal justice system.
For two decades, Steinberg has led The Bronx Defenders, a New York-based organization known nationally for their holistic approach to criminal defense.
This spinoff project represents the first time that The Bronx Defenders have opened an office outside of New York City.
And that office is purposefully in a shopping center in North Tulsa, a predominantly black community.
“Law offices tend to put themselves downtown near the courthouse because that’s easiest for the lawyers, which I totally respect,” Steinberg said. “But we really wanted to make sure the community felt some ownership over this project, that we were accessible for our clients who find transportation to be a huge obstacle, and that we were able to engage with and get to know the community better.”
Coming to Oklahoma
Steinberg was drawn to Oklahoma after learning a statistic that has been a long-standing issue for the state.
For more than 10 years, Oklahoma has had the highest female incarceration rate in the United States.
In 2015, there were more than 3,100 women incarcerated in Oklahoma. Many of them are mothers.
An estimated 4,000 children in Oklahoma have a mother in prison, and more than 2,200 of those children previously lived with their mother, according to the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.
Steinberg first learned the statistic from the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office, which had asked the Bronx Defenders to provide training in the organization’s approach to public defense.
When a private foundation approached Steinberg about opening a Tulsa office, she became fascinated by the idea.
She started to study the history of Tulsa and quickly learned of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, in which close to 300 people died.
The concept of holistic defense is that an attorney learns about a client on a personal, familial and community level, and then tries to unpack what’s happening to them in the criminal justice system.
“Once I learned about the 1921 race massacre, I went back to the foundation and said, ‘Look, if we’re going to do this project, we really would like to do it in North Tulsa … to serve women from North Tulsa in a community that still suffers the ravages and results of something that happened very long ago, but I think is still struggling to come to terms with both its history but also the history of under resourcing, marginalization and poverty.”
How it works
The attorneys at Still She Rises function similarly to public defenders, not charging the clients they represent.
Currently, the organization receives funding from the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Zarrow Family Foundations and private donors.
Along with the attorney services, client advocates also work at the organization, helping address the needs of clients outside of the courtroom.
Rosie Achorn-Rubenstein, a Still She Rises advocate, helps clients with civil legal issues, such as helping them secure or reconnect their Social Security benefits, food assistance or public housing.
When a client’s criminal case is finished, the advocates continue working with clients, helping them with re-entry programs and housing, among several other things, she said.
“Maybe six months down the road, there’s an issue that comes up, and they’re not sure who can help them,” Achorn-Rubenstein said. “Even if it’s not a service that we can provide, we want to make sure we know who to connect them with and follow up. It seems like there are a lot of interesting service providers here that are really, really open to collaboration, which is exciting.”
To qualify for services from Still She Rises, clients must be low-income, the primary caregiver for children, charged with a crime and living in the region of North Tulsa the organization serves. One exception is, they will serve any woman who is pregnant and living in their North Tulsa service area.
To find clients, the Still She Rises staff looks at public records regarding who gets arrested in Tulsa County, and then the organization’s attorneys talk with the potential client in jail.
For its first year, the Still She Rises team will take on only 250 women’s cases. The goal is to expand to 500 clients in the second year, Steinberg said.
Thus far, no one has turned down the organization’s offer to represent them.
Steinberg said she and her team have been overwhelmed by the gratitude of their clients and their families.
“I have never been anywhere where people are so gracious and trusting,” Steinberg said. “I feel enormously privileged that people are willing to share their very personal, intimate stories with us in their homes, around their tables, with their families present. The reaction has been incredible.”
For more information, please visit The Bronx Defenders online here.