U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

The Role of Indigent Defense for Defendants with Mental Health Disorders

Award Information

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

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2012, $485,625)

This is the first study of its kind to examine the nature of interaction between indigent defense attorneys (IDAs) and their clients with mental health disorders (MHD). The Vera Institute of Justice, and its partner Policy Research Associates, will conduct this research effort to address the lack of empirically based guidance on indigent representation for defendants with MHD. The research will identify the resources constraints, ethical dilemmas, practical challenges and best practices that impact the ability of IDAs to provide effective counsel that meets the needs of their clients with MHD. To achieve these goals, the research team will collect and analyze information from agencies in two jurisdictions in New York State; Bronx (options for representation: Bronx Defenders, Legal Aid, or court-appointed independent attorney) and Monroe (options for representation: public defender, Conflict Defenders, or 18B panel attorney) counties.
The project's research questions include:
o What is the relationship between type of representation and case outcomes for defendants with MHD?
o How does ID representation for defendants with MHD relate to conviction rates and sentence length?
o What factors related to ID influence time held in pre-trial detention?
o What ID factors predict referral to treatment based alternatives to incarceration?
o How do the institutional resources available to IDAs relate to outcomes?
o Do IDAs understand and represent the needs/priorities of clients with MHD?
o Are IDAs aware of client wishes about defense strategies and access to treatment?
o Do IDAs accurately understand client mental health needs?
o How often do IDAs draw upon institutional resources (e.g., social workers) when representing clients with MHD?
o When do IDAs raise issues about client treatment needs or competence to stand trial?
o What factors influence these decisions?
o Are defendants with MHD satisfied with case outcomes?
o How do defendants view the quality of their representation?
o Do they feel the outcomes and procedures in court are fair and equitable?
o How does their client-IDA relationship affect perceptions of court processes and case outcomes?
o What are the costs associated with different models of ID representation for defendants with MHD?
o How do these models compare when factoring in costs associated with various policies and practices for providing ID representation, including the frequency of client-attorney interactions, specialized assessment services, and extra-legal supports?
Research Subjects: An estimated 250 court cases (1-yr cohort) in the two New York counties -- Bronx and Monroe.
Research Design and Methods: Multiple data collection strategies: review of ID agency caseloads, policies and resources; parallel interviews; analysis of criminal justice administrative records; cost analysis; and court observation. Descriptive analysis of qualitative interview data, regression analysis of quantitative interview data, qualitative analysis of open-ended responses, and descriptive analysis of administrative data.

Date Created: August 27, 2012