« More guns = more gun crimes in 2020? | Main | US Sentencing Commission issues big new report on "Federal Armed Career Criminals: Prevalence, Patterns, and Pathways" »

March 3, 2021

Effective review of research on the effectiveness of indigent defense systems

I recently tripped across this interesting document authored by Maggie Bailey for the UNC School of Government Criminal Justice Innovation Lab titled "Empirical Research on the Effectiveness of Indigent Defense Delivery Systems."  Here are parts of the introduction and conclusion of this notable research review:

While the Constitution provides indigent defendants with the right to counsel, states have flexibility in determining how to administer that right. States use a variety of approaches for providing indigent defense services, including employing public defenders, appointing private attorneys on a case-by-case basis, and contracting with private attorneys (collectively, “delivery systems”), often using a combination of these approaches to handle caseloads (Cohen 2012, 30).  In this paper, I summarize seven empirical studies of the effectiveness of different types of indigent defense delivery systems.  These analyses compare case outcomes, collectively suggesting that appointed counsel achieve less favorable outcomes for indigent defendants, and discuss some explanatory factors for gaps in attorney performance across the different delivery systems.  A summary table of each study’s findings is provided at the end of the document....

Taken together, the studies discussed here suggest that, when compared to public defenders, appointed counsel generally achieve less favorable outcomes for their defendants. However, the severity of this performance gap varies across studies.  Scholars offer a number of a number of variables that may explain some of these differences, including low wages, lack of experience, variable caseloads, lack of resources, and law school quality.

There are opportunities for more research, including repetition of previous studies, to provide a comprehensive understanding of the pros and cons of these systems.  For example, while the studies in this paper discuss variables like wages and attorney experience, there are not consistent findings to parse out the extent to which these variables impact attorney performance and case outcomes.  The availability of sufficient, high-quality data appears to be a barrier to empirical research.  Additionally, while focusing on case outcomes is a critical part of measuring attorney performance, attorney quality is a multifaceted concept, and more research can contribute to identifying criteria for performance measurement.  Finally, it is worth examining and comparing the administrative structures of indigent defense systems to understand how elements such as qualification standards, funding, support services, and level of oversight influence outcomes for different delivery systems, although access to data may complicate this level of analysis.  Further research can help determine reforms that might enhance these systems to ensure the provision of equitable, high-quality representation for indigent defendants.

March 3, 2021 at 03:08 PM | Permalink


I have been appointed counsel in federal cases for over 30 years. The authors of the study may not have taken into account that in multi-defendant cases federal defenders usually are representing the first person who is arrested or served a target letter. In my experience those types of defendants are targeted by the government because they are perceived to be weak links who are prone to cooperate. So, the federal defender ends up in multi-defendant cases with persons who cooperate early and often who receive the best deals. In context, appointed counsel usually end up representing the most culpable persons in multi-defendant cases. My 2-cents.

Posted by: ? | Mar 3, 2021 4:29:02 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB