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Building Better Indigent Defense Systems

Award Information

Award #
Funding Category
Competitive Discretionary
Awardee County
Congressional District
Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2023, $800,000)

National best practice standards are unequivocal. Fulfilling the Sixth Amendment promise made in Gideon vs. Wainwright requires defense delivery systems that promptly provide counsel to any arrested person too poor to retain their own attorney.  Yet, jurisdictions across the country routinely fail to provide indigent arrested people with counsel.  Experts posit that these problems may be most serious in ad hoc systems for delivering indigent defense, usually run by local judges who develop and implement their own strategies for providing appointed counsel.

Do more structured defense delivery systems—such as staffed public defender offices (defender offices) and managed assigned counsel programs (MACs)—do a better job at providing eligible people with appointed counsel? To explore this research question, the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center will collect qualitative and quantitative data on indigent defense services in five jurisdictions that recently created a public defender office or a MAC.  These diverse study sites span four states and include rural, suburban, and urban legal systems. Each site has agreed to provide the Center with comprehensive access to its data from before and after the creation of these new structures for indigent defense delivery.

The Center’s mixed-method empirical analyses will examine three specific issues. First, are ad hoc defense delivery systems more or less likely provide indigent people with counsel than structured defense delivery systems such as defender offices and MACs? Second, does replacing an ad hoc system with a structured system impact case outcomes, both for indigent defendants and all other criminal defendants in the local legal system? And third, are the changes associated with the introduction of structured defense delivery systems equally distributed across defendants with different demographic characteristics?

The resulting study will integrate qualitative assessment of changes in policy, practice, and procedure in each site with difference-in-difference statistical comparisons that quantify impacts of organizational change on appointed counsel representation rates and defendants’ outcomes in court. Drawing on the Center’s research-for-reform model, this study will generate actionable recommendations for policymakers and indigent defense leaders. CA/NCF

Date Created: September 18, 2023