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The Evolving Character of Public Defense: Comparing Criminal Case Processing Effectiveness and Outcomes Across Holistic Public Defense, Traditional Public Defense, and Privately Retained Counsel

NCJ Number
Date Published
47 pages

The emergence and growth of professional criminal defense attorneys for indigent defendants are among the most important contemporary developments in the American legal system. As public defense systems mature, questions persist over how public defenders should best use their limited resources to enhance performance of their duties. In addressing the continuing debate over the quality of legal assistance to indigent clients, the public defense community has not been idle in advancing what it means to provide effective assistance of counsel. Under the emerging model of holistic defense, the defense attorney is one member of an interdisciplinary team of social workers, investigators, paralegals, and other support staff that provides a comprehensive strategy for addressing a defendant's legal needs, as well as any underlying social needs that may have contributed to a defendant's criminal justice system involvement. Holistic defense, also known as community-oriented defense, is currently the articulation of what constitutes effective criminal defense. Although in the last decade a growing number of indigent defense providers have adopted the holistic defense model, there is a lack of empirical evidence as to what effect holistic defense has on case outcomes. The Hennepin County Public Defender's Office ("HCPD") in Minneapolis, Minnesota meaningfully engages in all aspects of the holistic defense model and is particularly notable for its team-based approach to representation as well as its use of dispositional advisors as sentencing advocates. Our primary analysis examines. Many cases handled by holistic public defenders in the Hennepin County District Court and compares results with those obtained by privately retained attorneys in Hennepin County, as well as public defenders who practice a more traditional form of defense in the adjacent counties of Ramsey and Anoka. Drawing on a comprehensive data set from these three large Minnesota counties, this Article examines ten performance measures focused on two key areas of defense practice: (1) the effectiveness of defense attorney system performance and (2) the quality of client outcomes. This dual perspective allows us to address the empirical question of whether gains in efficiency affect client outcomes. The evidence gained from an examination of felony case resolutions in Minnesota shows that holistic and traditional public defenders are more successful than privately retained counsel in terms of the effectiveness of case processing practices. This is an important new finding as only minimal attention has been paid in the literature as to how cost-effectiveness and efficiency of case processing practices vary by type of attorney. Both holistic and traditional public defenders resolve their cases more quickly than privately retained counsel, scheduling cases more effectively by reducing the number of continuances and requiring about 1.5 fewer hearings per disposition. The enhanced efficiency of holistic and traditional public defenders does not come at the expense of the clients. Public defenders, both holistic and traditional, are as successful as privately retained attorneys in achieving favorable outcomes for their clients, including by way of acquittals, dismissals, and charge reductions. For individuals convicted of a felony offense, this analysis uses a novel approach in examining sentencing outcomes by controlling for the type of defense counsel together with the employment Of a state sentencing guideline system. The analysis of sentencing outcomes shows that clients represented by holistic defenders in Hennepin County receive an expected sentence that is approximately four months shorter than do clients represented by private counsel, taking into account offense seriousness, criminal history, other sentencing factors, and demographics. The results suggest a positive value to defenders of regularly collecting and analyzing data related to core organizational goals and objectives. Objective information about case activities and outcomes supports public defense efforts to evaluate performance and improve client representation. The current research identifies many strengths of public defense in the sites examined, but indicates a need for continued attention to enhancing data and information to more fully assess the role of holistic defense in improving the delivery of indigent defense services. (Publisher abstract provided)

Date Published: January 1, 2021