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21st Century Criminal Defense Practice: An Examination of the Impact of Holistic Defense in Wayne County, Michigan

Award Information

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

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2023, $829,358)

Despite this year marking the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the paucity of research on effective public defense models fuels a national crisis. In recent decades, holistic defense has emerged to fill the gaps in traditional defense practice by providing client-centered and comprehensive advocacy that prioritizes clients’ identified needs, legal or otherwise. Past research on the model has yielded promising results, but comparison groups have ignored one of the most common public defense delivery systems – managed assigned counsel programs. In response to this critical research gap, the Center for Justice Innovation (Center) proposes to work with Neighborhood Defender Service of Detroit (NDS Detroit) and the Wayne County Indigent Defense Services Department (IDSD) to conduct a mixed-methods evaluation of NDS Detroit’s holistic defense model. The evaluation will leverage the existing random assignment of felony cases in Wayne County, Michigan to estimate the causal impact of holistic practice.

Design and Methods: The comprehensive implementation evaluation will draw on data collected during a site visit, including direct observations and stakeholder and staff interviews. A sample of former NDS Detroit and assigned counsel clients will be recruited to understand the perceived legitimacy and level of trust they placed in their attorneys. The implementation evaluation will serve to document the successes and challenges associated with the NDS Detroit model and to assess the potential for holistic defense practice to be translated to other settings. Qualitative data will be analyzed to identify patterns across respondent type, observational situation, or interview domain.

For the impact evaluation, the random assignment of cases creates a natural experiment, which will be confirmed through analysis testing if study groups are balanced. Using data derived from court records, NDS Detroit, and IDSD, regression models will examine whether NDS Detroit clients experience (1) more positive felony case outcomes, (2) less restrictive pretrial conditions and fewer instances of pretrial failure, (3) fewer and less severe instances of recidivism, and (4) greater engagement with holistic resources relative to assigned counsel attorneys.

Subjects: The implementation evaluation will involve interviews with approximately 15 stakeholders and 30 former clients. The impact evaluation will involve approximately 48,000 felony cases.

Products: The research team will produce a summary of major findings to be submitted to NIJ, two topical briefs for practitioner audiences, and two journal manuscripts. Findings will be further disseminated through the Center’s multimedia strategy. All data will be archived in accordance with NIJ requirements. CA/NCF

Date Created: September 18, 2023