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UC researchers aim to improve America’s public defense system

UC researchers aim to improve America’s public defense system

Findings Staff Report | Nov. 10, 2020

Do no harm—the participant in the University of Cincinnati research study wanted to know if he could expect that from his public defender.

“You know, like a doctor’s got the Hippocratic Oath or whatever—he’s not supposed to hurt nobody,” the man said to researchers during his interview. A “lawyer’s got confidentiality, but he should have something similar to the Hippocratic Oath.”


Another participant voiced an opinion that it would be only fair to get at least 10 minutes with a court-appointed attorney before the person walks into a courtroom and represents an indigent client.


“This guy,” one participant added, “might jump through a hoop for you. And this guy here might never return your call. Now they’re both through a public defender’s office, so you’re in there rolling the dice.”


University of Cincinnati law professor Janet Moore recognized “how really appallingly bad criminal defense could be and how it disproportionately affected poor people,” well before she began working with UC in 2008 to create the College of Law’s Indigent Defense Clinic


Moore had earned master’s and juris doctor degrees from Duke University and clerked for the Honorable J. Dickson Phillips, Jr., on the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Her career and scholarly research have focused on “empowering low-income people to reduce the scope and harmful impacts of the carceral state.” From her first days as a capital defense attorney, she began to realize just how low the bar was set for public defense performance and how little power indigent defendants had to push that bar higher.


These concerns led to her first study, published in 2015. Moore and her research partners wanted to gain clients’ perceptions of their public defenders. The study was designed to collect quantitative and qualitative data directly from clients in Hamilton County—one of the first studies to ask unincarcerated clients themselves about their experiences. Earlier research depended mainly on quantitative data or only involved indigent clients who were easy to track down because they were in jail or prison. 


If you are facing the possibility of incarceration on a criminal charge, it is a right under U.S. law to have a defense lawyer appointed if you can’t afford one, yet relative to other core functions in criminal legal systems very little empirical research had been done on the topic, Moore says. In that first project, the team collected 134 individual surveys. They found that a slight majority (52.1 %) reported being satisfied with their public defender.

A troubling theme emerges


Despite a majority of the clients being satisfied overall, 63% disagreed that their public defender had, “Asked my opinion.” More than a quarter of the respondents chose “disagree” on statements that their public defender: “told me about all the possible outcomes,” “focused on my case during meetings” and “looked into prosecutor’s evidence.”


Moore needed to know more. The qualitative data in the first study had been limited but added important nuance and insight, with participants expressing mistrust in the system itself and unequal levels of attention from their public defender.


This July, the scholarly article on her follow-up research (with a new research team) was included in a special issue of Criminal Justice Policy Review, one of seven papers from a diverse group of scholars. Moore acted as a co-guest editor on the issue. To her knowledge, it is the first peer-reviewed journal to focus a symposium issue on empirical research in public defense. 


Had it not been for the UC Office of Research, the work likely would never have come together, Moore says.

Building an interdiscplinary research team


She met her first future collaborator on the project, Jacinda K. Dariotis, at an Office of Research meet and greet. Moore “eavesdropped” on a conversation Dariotis was having at the event about her research in human development, prevention science, and public health, and her particular focus on adolescent risk-taking behaviors and decision-making.


Moore later reached out to Dariotis, who has advanced degrees in Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS), and Statistics, and, at the time, was director of UC’s Evaluation Services Center (ESC) and professor in the School of Education. (Dariotis is now employed at the University of Illinois, as a professor in the HDFS department and director of its Family Resiliency Center, a transdisciplinary research and policy center that addresses grand societal challenges.)


“I have always been interested in better understanding human development in light of adversity,” Dariotis says. “Some people are able to come out relatively unscathed. Others can barely function. What I’m interested in is not just resiliency, but how does one thrive in the face of adversity.”


Dariotis drew parallels between Moore’s work and her own.


“You can certainly connect incarceration to public health,” Dariotis says, “almost everything connects to public health.” She recommended that Moore also bring up the idea with Vicki L. Plano Clark, a Ph.D. in Quantitative and Qualitative Methods in Education and an associate professor in research methods at UC. She works with doctoral students from across UC’s campuses to design mixed method research projects as they earn their degrees.


Plano Clark, too, felt compelled to do this research, despite never meeting Moore before and never working on criminal justice topics in her own research. 


“To get the opportunity to open up research in a whole field—do what hasn’t been done by broadening the methods that can be used, that has lasting ripple effects,” Plano Clark says. “This was a small project, but it could be pretty powerful.”


Finding funding from within UC

Moore knew UC interdisciplinary grant applications were due soon. The three women put their heads together and applied. The reviewers saw merit in the idea and UC granted the group $25,000—enough to set up and run the research study.


ESC led data collection in partnership with law student research assistants. The team set out to gather survey and qualitative data from indigent clients in a large urban defender system. In the end, 22 individuals were interviewed, some in group settings and others individually. 


Moore’s earlier study showed that communication was important to public defense clients. Working with the partner public defender agency, the team focused on factors that improve or impede quality communication.


Moore depended heavily on the expertise of Plano Clark and Dariotis to design the qualitative research project, including forming questions and the framework for the interviews, while Moore used her expertise in law and her criminal justice connections to make sure that attorney-client privilege and other client rights were protected and that the research team had law and subject matter context. Graduate research assistant Lori Foote joined the team during the analysis phase and has since become a Visiting Assistant Professor in UC’s School of Education.


Once again, a majority (63.6 %) of those interviewed reported being “satisfied with the way my attorney handled my case.” Yet, 33.3 % disagreed that their defender: “investigated my case,” “used our meeting time efficiently” and “asked for my opinion on issues regarding my case.” 


They told the researchers all the things quoted above, like whether lawyers could be asked to “do no harm.” 


“These degraded expectations and aspirations, and the implications for the utility of client satisfaction as a measure in public defense research, may best be illustrated by one participant’s reform proposal: that public defenders should be required by law to talk to their clients for a minimum of 10 minutes before court,” the research team’s scholarly article released in July reads.


Will this research help reform the system?

In November, the team’s co-authored piece and other articles in the special issue of Criminal Justice Policy Review will be the focus of discussion at a virtual meeting of the National Association for Public Defense’s leadership team, who want to explore the potential of such research for policy innovation in the U.S..


The findings have many implications including a need to further “examine factors that lead public defense clients to demand more and better communication with their government-paid lawyers. Research should also assess the efficacy of community organizing, including the sharing of information about defendant rights and attorney duties, in promoting improved practices and outcomes,” the article reads.


There’s one other thing Moore wanted to add about this work. 


“Maybe this doesn’t happen with every project—though I suspect it does with some, and it certainly did with ours. We formed friendships,” Moore says. “During this research, I was diagnosed with cancer. Not only did these women carry a lot of workload but they supported me and continue to support me. I respect and admire them so much. These types of connections can’t be understated.”


It’s part of what makes UC’s research community so great, Moore says and encourages others to apply for a collaborative pilot grant this year and expand their horizons. 


To learn more, visit the Funding Opportunities page. Depending on the award, deadlines begin in December and run through the first few months of 2021. 


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