Indigent Defense Research

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NIJ's Research Program and Goals

NIJ has funded indigent defense research for several decades. Currently, NIJ’s goals are to:

  1. Increase the amount of rigorous research in the field of indigent defense services, policies and practices
  2. Develop useful tools that improve the quality of indigent defense
  3. Enhance the understanding of the issues surrounding the availability of indigent defense services

A primary objective of NIJ’s research is to stimulate partnerships among social scientists, legal experts and indigent defense practitioners who examine, in a scientifically rigorous way, issues relevant to access to counsel and effective assistance of counsel.

Past NIJ-sponsored research includes studies on alternative models for criminal defense services, mental health care provided to indigent defendants, and the early representation by defense counsel and its impacts on case processing and outcomes. Since 2000, NIJ has completed two major studies on indigent defense services.

Social science research examining the fundamental issues surrounding access to quality legal representation has been lacking. In fiscal year 2012, NIJ awarded three new grants to expand social science research on indigent defense. NIJ sought to fund research projects, including investigator-initiated research, focused on issues associated with indigent defense, such as waiver of counsel and the importance of defense team members in indigent defense cases.

The Implementation and Impact of Indigent Defense Standards

Researchers from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, under a grant from NIJ, studied the impact of standards developed by national commissions to make indigent defense services more uniform, effective and efficient. The goal of their work was to measure the influence of prior national standards and help state and local governments, funding agencies, and indigent defense agencies assess the need for standardization. To achieve this goal, they surveyed states and then constructed more detailed verification and analyses of the impacts of defense standards in four jurisdictions.

They concluded that indigent defense standards play a key role in keeping workloads manageable, allocating for adequate staff, maintaining necessary levels of funding for staff, ensuring uniform quality of service, improving supervision and evaluation of staff, and improving coordination among the courtroom workgroup, which includes judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys. They also found, however, that the benefits of standards are highly dependent on the manner and extent of their enforcement. As a result, enforcement of standards is typically tied to appropriations from the state or other funding mechanisms.

Read the final report, Implementation and Impact of Indigent Defense Standards, Scott Wallace and David Carroll, National Legal Aid and Defender Association, December 2003.

Measuring the Effect of Defense Counsel on Homicide Case Outcomes

Researchers from the RAND Corporation, under a grant from NIJ, used natural randomization of attorney assignment for indigent murder defendants in Philadelphia, Pa., to examine how defense lawyers affect murder case outcomes. The court randomly assigned one in five indigent clients to a public defender whereas all other clients received court-appointed attorneys.

The study found that, compared to appointed counsel, public defenders reduced their clients’ murder conviction rate by 19 percent, lowered their clients’ likelihood of receiving a life sentence by 62 percent, and reduced the expected sentence to be served by 24 percent. In addition to their quantitative analysis, the researchers interviewed system actors and discovered that institutional factors, such as lack of resources, lack of incentives and isolation, may have affected the differences between assigned counsel and public defender outcomes.

Read the final report, Measuring the Effect of Defense Counsel on Homicide Case Outcomes, James M. Anderson and Paul Heaton, RAND, December 2012 .

The Role of Indigent Defense for Defendants with Mental Health Disorders

This project aims to assess the state of indigent defense services for defendants with mental health disorders. The research will identify resource constraints, ethical dilemmas, practical challenges and best practices that affect the ability of indigent defense attorneys to provide effective counsel that meets the needs of this group of defendants.

Researchers will conduct in-person interviews with indigent defense attorneys and defendants with serious mental health disorders to gather information on their needs, perceptions and priorities. They also will obtain information on the defense strategies adopted by the attorneys and their perceptions of the clients’ needs. In addition, researchers will analyze administrative records from local and state agencies to describe the relationship between representation type and case outcomes for defendants with mental health disorders.

This research is being performed by Jim Parsons from The Vera Institute of Justice and Henry Steadman from Policy Research Associates under NIJ grant 2012-R2-CX-0009.

Examining the Effectiveness of Indigent Defense Team Services: A Multisite Evaluation of Holistic Defense in Practice

The National Center for State Courts will conduct a multisite empirical evaluation of the practices and effects of the holistic approach to indigent defense. Holistic defense is an emerging model in which the defense attorney is one member of an interdisciplinary team of social workers, investigators, paralegals and other support staff. The team provides comprehensive services to address the defendant’s legal needs as well as any underlying social concerns that may have contributed to the defendant’s involvement with the criminal justice system.

Proponents of holistic defense assert that this approach leads to better legal outcomes and long-term improvements in rates of recidivism and incarceration. Thus far, little empirical evidence either supports or refutes the accuracy of this assertion. Using multiple methods, researchers will explore how the principles of holistic defense are interpreted and implemented in practice. Their analysis will include the financial and organizational requisites for implementing a holistic defense program and the possible benefits that holistic defense can provide to defendants.

This evaluation is being performed by Brian Ostrom, Matt Klieman, and Roger Allan Hanson of the National Center for State Courts and Charles Ostrom of Michigan State University and the American Bar Association under NIJ grant 2012-R2-CX-0011.

Waiver of Counsel in Juvenile Court

Investigators from Georgetown University and the University of Massachusetts will examine age-based differences in defendant knowledge regarding the role of counsel, presumptions about counsel, and maturity of judgment when making decisions about whether to waive the right to counsel in juvenile court. Researchers will assess intellectual functioning, emotional symptoms, psychosocial maturity, and knowledge and beliefs about attorneys and the judicial system process to detect non-independence or influence within 400 pairs of parents and post-adjudication youth of varying ages.

This research is being performed by Jennifer Woolard of Georgetown University and Kimberly Larson and Thomas Grisso of the University of Massachusetts under NIJ grant 2012-R2-CX-0008.