By Sarah Stillman
On a late-October morning two years ago, Robin Steinberg stood barefoot in her apartment, on the Upper West Side, preparing to uproot her life. Her suitcases were stacked by the door, her winter coats piled in the hallway. Steinberg, a fifty-nine-year-old native New Yorker, had decided to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to launch a legal startup. She laced up her sneakers and said goodbye to the bedrooms of her grown children, which she called “the shrines.” As she dragged her bags to her car, she told her doorman that she was going to cry. “I’m not good with change,” she said. He told her not to worry, and blew her a farewell kiss.
When Steinberg decided to move to Tulsa, she wasn’t sure whether it was in the Midwest, or the Southwest, or somewhere else altogether—“the buckle of the Bible Belt,” she called it to friends. After an initial scouting trip, she told me, “I saw a woman in yoga pants with a gun strapped to her leg—it’s an open-carry state!” Steinberg had spent most of her career working in the South Bronx. In 1997, along with seven others, including her husband, David Feige, she co-founded the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit that provides legal services to indigent clients. Rather than representing a client in an isolated case, the organization addresses the underlying reasons that the person ended up in the criminal-justice system.
Lawyers might meet a client through a drug-possession case, then help him fight an eviction, get public benefits, or fill out his kids’ school-enrollment paperwork. “We’ll go anyplace a person needs us to go,” Steinberg, who served as the organization’s executive director, said. “Housing court, family court, immigration court.” This model became known as “holistic defense,” and, by 2016, the Bronx Defenders had expanded to a staff of three hundred, and was handling thirty thousand cases a year. The organization’s progress has mirrored changes in the nation as a whole. Beginning in the nineteen-seventies, as the war on drugs took off, incarceration rates in the U.S. grew explosively. Only in the past eight years have rates finally begun to fall for most demographic groups, with one alarming exception: women and girls.