Part of the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Smart Suite of criminal justice programs, the Smart Defense Initiative combines the expertise of researchers and practitioners in building evidence-based, data-driven strategies to improve indigent defense delivery systems for maximum, sustained, and measurable impact.

December 2016

In this issue:
  • Welcoming the Newest Smart Defense Site. The U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance recently awarded a sixth Smart Defense Initiative grant to the Contra Costa County Office of the Public Defender to implement and assess a project that offers representation to individuals who are cited and released on misdemeanor charges well in advance of their first court appearance.  The two-year project is just getting under way, but details about the proposed plan of action follow.
  • This Month's Highlights: Progress and Challenges Across the Sites. Wisconsin  attorneys pilot RAMP reporting; Database Administrator  Chandru Solraj honored as Unsung Hero.  Alameda County 's new court data system causes major disruptions. Kentucky  and New York weigh analytic capacity against burdens on private attorneys. Texas  convenes its National Advisory Committee and begins website design.
  • American Society of Criminology Meets in New Orleans. Betsi Griffith, Associate Deputy Director, Bureau of Justice Assistance, presented an overview of the Smart Defense Initiative to the indigent defense researchers gathered at ASC 2016

Welcoming the Newest Smart Defense Site:
Contra Costa County, California 

P artnering with police to improve misdemeanor citation and release.

Project Overview

Program Agency:  Contra Costa County Office of the Public  Defender  (OPD)
Research Partner:  Justice Management Institute (JMI)
Background:  In West Contra Costa County, the existing practice in the majority of misdemeanor cases is for the police department to issue a citation, instruct the individual to appear at an indicated court date, and release the individual without arrest.  Court dates are set, on average, about six weeks in the future.  As many as one third of the cited individuals in Contra Costa fail to appear (FTA) on their initial court date, which results in the issuance of an arrest warrant, incarceration, and the negative collateral effects of jail time. A major driver of the high rate of FTA appears to be that defendants do not understand the instructions of the citation as to when to appear in court - especially because many county residents are monolingual Spanish speakers, and the citation forms are in English only. Court dates also can change without defendants' knowledge. And in some instances, the district attorney has yet to file criminal charges by the initial court date, leading some individuals to show up and leave thinking there is no case. 

Counsel could help defendants better understand the court process . However, eligible defendants do not receive an offer of appointed counsel until they make their first court appearance, whether at that initial court date or following arrest for failing to appear.   This process, common to many throughout the country, disadvantages low-income people who do not have access to counsel prior to their initial court date.

Robin Lipetzky, Chief Public Defender in Contra Costa County. (Credit: Contra Costa County)
Program Design:  The Contra Costa Office of the Public Defender will establish the West County Misdemeanor Early Release Project in partnership with the City of Richmond Police Department (RPD) and the West County Re-entry Resource Center. When making misdemeanor citations, RPD officers will now  provide the cited person with a printed information card, in English and in Spanish, referring  them to free, bilingual counsel, based out of the West County Re-entry Resource Center.  Counsel will be available well in advance of the initial court date.  Consistent with Principle 3 of the ABA Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System, this process will ensure that representation begins as soon as feasible.

RPD, the court, and the District Attorney  will also provide defenders with information about citations issued and case developments.  Counsel will use this information to begin investigating cases sooner (preserving evidence, exploring alternatives to jail, securing transportation or childcare for clients  to ensure court appearance) and to inform clients about when they need to be court, including through  automated appointment reminders issued by the Re-Entry Resource Center's data management system. Other jurisdictions have found automated these reminders to reduce FTA rates by 38-60%.  Being housed at the Re-entry Resource Center, counsel will work with Center staff to provide holistic defense representation, ensuring that clients build comprehensive plans to address civil and criminal legal needs, housing, employment, behavioral health services, and family supports, which can be determinative of the case outcomes.
Research Design:   The Justice Management Institute (JMI) will serve as an active partner throughout the design, implementation, and evaluation of the project.  JMI will work with all of the project's criminal justice system partners to  aggregate  relevant data and create common, unique identifiers across information systems. In addition, JMI will integrate a new data tracking system for this project with OPD's current CMS The project's success will be measured against a baseline of three years of retrospective data, primarily about case processing. JMI and OPD plan to conduct quarterly meetings to present progress to the larger community of stakeholders.
  • Improve case results for indigent persons charged with misdemeanor offenses by diverting cases pre-filing and improving case dispositions through early case evaluation, case investigation, and intervention with the District Attorney's Office prior to first court appearance.
  • Reduce the numbers of arrest warrants issued for indigent persons by reducing FTA rates at the first arraignment date.
  • Reduce the financial and human-resource costs to law enforcement and the justice system of processing FTA arrest warrants for misdemeanor cases. 
  • Eliminate or mitigate the collateral consequences to the individual of a custodial arrest.


Integrating court data with public defender system data for more robust analytic capacity.

Status: Private attorney reporting rolls out.
Programmers for the Reporting, Analysis and Mining Project (RAMP) reached a project milestone by finalizing the prototype of a new case reporting and vouchering system for private bar attorneys who handle conflict of interest cases for the  Wisconsin State Public Defender (SPD). The new system features drop down menus to replace a system that relied on free text entry. This shift is anticipated to greatly speed data entry for attorneys and therefore encourage them to report, while at the same time, provide richer and more reliable data from which SPD can assess system performance.
The RAMP team put the model through testing by a group of 11 private attorneys for a two-week trial period.  The pilot attorneys selected represent a range of ages and geographic location, and they handle different types of cases. Some attorneys are less tech-savvy and were chosen for that reason, while some have their secretaries do reporting.  SPD could not incentivize the pilot so attorneys participated on a volunteer basis. University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute researchers drafted a survey for the attorneys piloting the reporting tool and results will inform modification to the prototype. 

Chandru Solraj, SPD Database Administrator. (Credit: Wisconsin Law Journal)
RAMP, at its core, is a technological initiative, merging data  from the state court system with that of the State Public Defender. The work will transform SPD's ability to assess litigation trends and outcomes, review attorney performance, and support evidence-based decision making on budgets and overall policies. To be sure, the project benefits from a hard-working team of attorneys and other SPD professionals, but at its heart are the vision and skills of database administrator Chandru Solraj, who has spearheaded the programming and moved the project forward at an astonishing pace.
Solraj was recognized for his contributions on RAMP as one of 26 " Unsung Heroes" honored by the Wisconsin Law Journal in December. This annual event recognizes excellence by non-lawyer professionals in the state's legal community.  Solraj brings to the SPD an impressive set of experiences working in the information technology industry in the U.S. and around the world. In the Law Journal, SPD Communications Director Randy Kraft said of Solraj, "Chandru's skillset of developing technical solutions that fit into the SPD's business processes has been of great benefit. Chandru is also a pleasure to work with, as he embodies a mindful and peaceful approach to his work." 

Alameda County, California 

P iloting public defender representation at arraignment (a client's first appearance before a judicial officer).

Status: Court CMS challenges; new messaging materials in production.

Brendon Woods, Alameda County Public Defender, profiled by the East Bay Times. (Credit:  Malaika Fraley/Staff of East Bay Times)
The Alameda County court system recently adopted a new Case Management System (CMS) that unfortunately has been plagued with errors. The CMS was designed so that clerks could update case files in real time, but they are finding the user interface too cumbersome to keep up with court proceedings.  As a result, judicial actions and court dates are often not appearing in the system in a timely fashion and people are getting arrested on recalled warrants and are being held in county jails beyond their sentence.  The situation has deteriorated to the point where the Alameda County Public Defender Office (ACPDO) filed dozens of motions to compel the Superior Court to take accurate record of court proceedings or stop using the new CMS, as the East Bay Times reported These problems have also prevented the Alameda County Smart Defense project from downloading court data as planned.
In the meantime, ACPDO has been working on communication materials with Silicon De-Bug (De-Bug) and the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP). De-Bug//ACJP are creators of "participatory defense" - a community organizing model for people facing charges, their families, and communities. As they have done in communities around the country, De-Bug//ACJP will create a First 24 fact sheet to explain to Alameda County residents what they should expect in the first 24 hours after they or a loved one is arrested.  In addition, De-Bug//ACJP is developing a video that chronicles the impact of having public defender representation at first appearance in Alameda County, featuring interviews with clients and their families, exploring how it felt to face the court with and without an attorney by their side.


Supervising and supporting contract attorneys handling conflict of interest cases.

Status: Motivating target attorneys to report data and accept case support.

The Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy (DPA) continues to work with the University of Louisville researchers to refine methods for capturing project data. One of the challenges DPA faces, in the absence of an automated data reporting system, is motivating contract attorneys in the Smart Defense target group to report necessary case-related data, such as client jail visits and court events.  Participating attorneys are asked to submit data via email to the project director. Sharply limited fees paid to contract attorneys limits the time they can commit to reporting requested data.  The DPA is exploring secure, online reporting options to make the process easier.   In the meantime, the project team is using the Kentucky court system's Courtnet to manually pull data on a case by case basis.
One of the goals of Smart Defense Kentucky is to create, for the first time, a means of systematically monitoring and assisting contract attorneys in their cases. Part of that effort is having an experienced attorney conduct a case review with each target zone contract attorney on felony cases two or so months in advance of their trial dates.  Because of the way in which Kentucky courts schedule their trial dates and also because many cases are disposed prior to trial, only a handful of case reviews from the target group have been conducted to date.  This number is expected to increase as cases initiated since the start of this project are now getting closer to their trial dates.

New York City, NY 

Developing performance indicators for assigned counsel and a data system to track their representation.

Status: CMS decisions; finalizing needs assessment.

The New York City Mayor's Office for Criminal Justice (MOCJ) is working with the City's Department of Finance (DoF) to determine whether it will rebuild its IT system for the Assigned Counsel Program's (ACP) or purchase a commercial product.  Whichever the path taken, goals are to redesign and modernize the DoF's IT system and its ACP vouchering component.  MOCJ has prepared a very detailed draft reporting form of data it would like to collect from ACP attorneys in order to better assess system performance.  However, the list of potential data fields is extensive, and even with anticipated automated data exchanges with the courts in place to populate the fields, there is concern that ACP attorneys may be reluctant to expend adequate time to enter data in all of the fields.  MOCJ is attempting to refine the list to a smaller number of key performance indicators.
On the research side, the Center for Court Innovation (CCI) is finalizing its needs assessment for the project.  The needs assessment incorporates extensive interviews with ACP attorneys, ACP administrators, judges and other stakeholders, as well as review of relevant state and county laws and appellate rules.  The needs assessment findings will inform project recommendations for strengthening the ACP program. 


Reporting the state of indigent defense in 254 Texas counties through a new web portal.

Status: National Advisory Committee meets; website design begins.

On November 28, 2016, the Texas Smart Defense project team - led by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission and  Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University - hosted the second virtual meeting of its 11-member National Advisory Committee. (Texas Smart Defense also has a State Advisory Committee, which includes members representing justice system stakeholders from Texas.) After receiving an update on the progress made since the National Advisors' first call in February, the floor was opened for reaction and input. Overall reaction was very positive. Suggestion was made to not lose focus on factors examining misdemeanor practice.
Smart Defense Texas has vetted, honed and beta tested its initial draft of data points that will be shared through the A.C.T. Smart Portal to the point that the project can now shift to website design. Project designers are thinking about the look, feel, and features of the portal. 

ascAmerican Society of Criminology Meets in New Orleans 

The Smart Defense Initiative was highlighted at the November annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in New Orleans, Louisiana by Betsi Griffith, Associate Deputy Director, Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice.  Ms. Griffith shared that the overall BJA Smart Suite Initiative represents an investment of $186 million into research-based projects addressing all aspects of the criminal and juvenile justice systems in 200 sites across the U.S. She noted that for Smart Defense, unlike many of the other initiatives, the work is truly building a research and data foundation where none existed before, while increasing capacity of practitioner organizations to do research.
The ASC meeting featured the third consecutive year of a day-long "conference within a conference" of panels featuring research on indigent defense. The special themed program has been championed and organized by Andrew Davies, Director of Research for the New York Office of Indigent Legal Services. Panels included results of work examining client opinions of their representation; discussion of two studies examining the effect of counsel at first appearance; and a study of the effects of holistic defense practice. Another highlight was a panel discussion on the challenges of preserving client confidentiality while undertaking indigent defense research. NLADA presented a status report on its project working to create a national set of quality indicators for indigent defense. 

This project was supported by grant number 2015-AJ-BX-K043 awarded to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, United States Department of Justice.  Points of view or opinions contained within this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs or Department of Justice or the National Legal Aid and Defender Association or the National Criminal Justice Association.