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.

July 2017

In this issue:
  • Smart Defense Inter-site Summit 2017. The six Smart Defense sites meet at the Department of Justice for the second annual Summit. Each team discussed challenges and shared early results.
  • Contra Costa County Site Visit.  The TTA team travels to Richmond, California, to meet with Smart Defense Contra Costa project team and local law enforcement about improving the process for issuing misdemeanor citations.
  • Kentucky Site Visit. Smart Defense Kentucky has developed its second-ever training event for conflict counsel based on the performance data that the project team has collected.
  • Site Visits to Westchester County, New York, and Marquette County, Michigan.  NLADA is adapting and evaluating  a model mentoring curriculum for private assigned counsel in three juridictions.

Smart Defense 2017 Inter-Site Summit
Findings from the Sites  

On May 15 and 16, 2017, representatives of all six Smart Defense Initiative sites gathered at the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) offices in Washington D.C. for the second Smart Defense Inter-Site Summit. The two-year grant period for the initial five sites ends this fall, so  they are now reflecting on successes and challenges of their projects and planning for sustainability beyond the term of their grants. The TTA team and officials from the Department of Justice spoke to the critical significance of the Smart Defense for developing evidence-based practices in public defense, and highlighted opportunities for the sites to expand on their work through related federal initiatives.  In addition, sites shared on their progress and preliminary findings:

 Contra Costa County

The Contra Costa County Smart Defense team opened the site presentations with an overview of its project, which is designed to provide earlier public defender representation to people cited and released for misdemeanors by police officers in Richmond, California. The project, which began work a year after the original five Smart Defense Initiative sites, is designed to reduce the County's high failure to appear (FTA) rate at the initial appearance in these cases. FTAs occur in large part from a peculiarity in Contra Costa County whereby police officers supply court dates that are six weeks out from the citation, although frequently the District Attorney has not yet filed charges by that date. Individuals arrive at court on the date supplied on their citation, find there is no case docketed, and receive no updated notice of the actual first court date. Police officers now inform cited individuals with the availability of early public defender consultation, and also notify defenders of all individuals cited so they can reach out to them directly with advice and updated case information. The project team shared the results of a pilot study in another part of the county: defenders worked with 900 clients and raised the court appearance rate from 43% to 70%. The project team has already noted differences between Richmond and its pilot site, and is working to adapt its model accordingly.

Alameda County

The Smart Defense Alameda County project provides, for the first time, defense counsel representation at arraignment for felony cases in Oakland and for both felonies and misdemeanors in Hayward, California, two of the County's largest cities. At the Summit, the project team reported representing approximately 1000 previously unrepresented clients at arraignment per quarter since February 2016. The preliminary results of this representation show more people being released from jail, and sooner, at a cost savings to the county jail.


Smart Defense Wisconsin's project has identified statewide performance indicators across practice areas and integrated the public defender's and the court's data systems in order to track those indicators in real time and create reports to inform evidence-based performance evaluations and policy decisions. The project team shared its comprehensive process for selecting indicators and overhauling their data system. First, a multidisciplinary team identified their various data needs; this team included the State Public Defender's agency leads and division directors, information technology staff, and research partners from the Public Health Institute of the University of Wisconsin. In addition, they consulted with line staff and contract counsel about the functionality of their existing data reporting systems and made significant changes to the interfaces in response to their feedback.  At project end, drawing on its upgraded data system, the State Public Defender will have a set of regularly generated management reports to aid in internal staff performance assessment and in external messaging to the legislature. It will also have a new interface to collect improved information on vouchering and performance from private bar attorneys who handle conflict of interest cases. 

New York City

Smart Defense New York City reported completing an intensive study of the city's assigned counsel plan (ACP) and leveraging this assessment to secure authorization to add seven additional staff members to support the ACP's administrators. Previously, two administrators oversaw 1100 private attorneys (who handled all of New York City's homicides and 95% of its criminal trials) without any data about these attorneys' performance. The Smart Defense project conducted a needs assessment of the ACP and mapped out the complicated legal oversight mechanisms for the ACP system. This information helped MOCJ bring stakeholders together to submit a joint proposal for a new vouchering system - to include performance data tracking - to the Mayor's Office of Management and the Budget.  The New York Smart Defense team feels certain that without the Smart Defense work, there would never have been additional resources approved for the ACP system. The grant provided the opportunity for broad stakeholder engagement around the needs of the long-neglected ACP system.


In Kentucky, in sharp contrast with the state's public defender system, private attorneys who contract to represent clients in conflict-of-interest cases have historically received no oversight, resources or training. Paid only small, flat fees for their work, they have not been required to report information about their case activities. The Smart Defense Kentucky project team hired a Conflict Counsel Coordinator to provide resources, training and oversight to conflict counsel, and began requiring attorneys to report basic data about their cases to help assess the effect on performance of the added resources. At the Summit, the Conflict Counsel Coordinator workshopped challenges to data collection and analysis with other Smart Defense site teams. A number of Smart Defense site teams have grappled with common difficulties of monitoring and improving representation provided by private attorneys, especially: appropriately overseeing conflict-of-interest cases; incentivizing additional reporting and case work without additional funding; and connecting decentralized practitioners to available training, motion banks, communities of practice, and other resources from which full-time defenders benefit. Smart Defense Kentucky's preliminary findings are providing empirical support for arguments about the needs of conflict counsel and the importance of ongoing oversight.


The Smart Defense Texas team demonstrated its soon-to-be-launched A.C.T. Smart online portal, which reports on indigent defense performance measures for Texas' 254 counties. The project team displayed how the current website of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission - the statewide oversight body - displays high-level, county-by-county data about public defense funding and caseloads but offers little to state and local policymakers in terms of context for these data. The new data portal will collect performance measures and explain their relevance to statutory requirements and best practices for indigent defense in Texas. The project team will shortly have the results of a pilot test of data reporting from several of the state's largest counties. 

Smart Defense Contra Costa County Site Visit
Rethinking Citations with Local Law Enforcement

Smart Defense Contra Costa project leads Ellen McDonnell (pictured left) and Bianca Hernandez were interviewed by local news station KQED. Source:
Smart Defense TTA providers NLADA and NCJA made a site visit to Contra Costa County in mid-May. The visit allowed the TTA team to see first-hand how early representation affects courtroom procedure across the county and to meet with key stakeholders to plan for full project implementation.

Of particular concern to all stakeholders was the County's high rates of people failing to appear for their court dates in misdemeanor citation cases. The project team attributes that breakdown, in part, to charges not being filed in time for the court dates listed on citations, leaving people who do show up for those court dates with no guidance about when, or if, they should return.  Arrest warrants are issued when cases are finally filed and calendared and the cited individual does not appear. 

Along with key public defender staff, the TTA Team met with stakeholder partners from the Richmond Police Department, District Attorney's office, courts, and community re-entry center for perceptions into how well the project was working. Feedback from all was positive. For instance, police officers support the initiative as it allows them to devote more time to patrol rather than arresting people facing minor charges who missed their court dates. And the meetings proved the value of stakeholder communication. Conversations pointed toward some agreed on areas for system refinement, such as in district attorney turn-around of screened cases. 

The site visit also brought the TTA and project teams together in-person to plan their program and research design. The Public Defender shared the agency's current "data system": a hand-written tally of their monthly caseloads. The courts similarly rely on an outdated, DOS-like case management system, which has been in the process of being updated for some time. Because these data collection limitations create additional burdens on the project team to collect, clean, and analyze data, the TTA team talked through possibilities for reasonably focusing data collection and building additional analytic capacity for the project.

Thanks especially to the experience and relationships developed in the eastern county pilot project, Smart Defense Contra Costa is off to a strong start. The media has also taken note of their success. In May, a local National Public Radio outlet publicized the expansion of the early representation to Richmond, in a piece entitled, " How One Simple Program Helps Get People to Court."


At the end of May, the Smart Defense TTA team returned to Frankfort, Kentucky, headquarters of the Department of Public Advocacy (DPA), for its second-ever training of private attorneys who provide representation in conflict-of-interest cases.  The training attracted approximately 60 attorneys who have contracted with DPA to represent individuals in cases that pose conflicts of interest for staff public defenders to handle.  As an incentive to attend training, the Smart Defense grant covered lodging and attorneys earned CLE hours.

The topics for the training were chosen based upon feedback from conflict counsel and upon the results of data tracking by the Smart Defense project's Conflict Counsel Coordinator. These topics included guidance on incorporating recent legislative and case law updates; advocating for favorable pre-sentence investigation reports; finding, working with, and paying for an investigator with available state funds; challenging illegal searches; and preventing allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel. The training also demonstrated some of the resources that are newly available to conflict counsel through the Smart Defense project, such as case reviews.

One of the recent changes to contract attorney practice requires conflict counsel to request a case review by an experienced trial attorney eight weeks out from trial in all Felony C and higher cases.  To date, few attorneys have taken advantage of this opportunity.  In part, this is due to the fact that the vast majority of cases conclude with a guilty plea rather than a trial.  But in part, it is suspected, many conflict counsel do not have a full appreciation of the benefit of a case review.  At the training, attorneys split into three groups and participated in joint case reviews of actual cases, each facilitated by an experienced DPA attorney.  One of the groups discussed building the theory of case for a homicide case Conflict Case Coordinator John Delaney is handling as a conflict attorney. The discussions were lively and clearly demonstrated that having another set of eyes on a case can open new avenues for defense counsel to most effectively represent their client. 

The attorneys who attended completed a pre-training survey and another survey at the conclusion of the training. Responses to these surveys will be analyzed by the research team to determine whether the trainings increased attorney knowledge in the topic areas. During the site visit, the TTA team also enjoyed the opportunity to meet on an informal basis with several of the conflict attorneys to learn about their perspectives on the training and the project.

The site visit allowed the TTA team, practitioners, and researchers to follow up on questions from the Smart Defense Inter-site Summit and to finalize a research agenda. The practitioners and researchers have revisited their original contract, and now clarified their responsibilities for specific deliverables. With these details now confirmed, the project can move forward toward a robust, data-informed analysis of Kentucky's conflict counsel system.

Trainers and participants at the second annual conflict counsel training in Frankfort, Kentucky, pictured with Kentucky Public Advocate Ed Monahan (pictured far right).

Piloting Assigned Counsel Mentoring in Three Sites

As part of its expanded training and technical assistance for the Smart Defense Initiative, NLADA is working in three jurisdictions to help introduce mentoring programs for private assigned counsel. Private assigned counsel provide the majority of indigent defense representation around the country, yet are often subject to no oversight and offered no training or support for their work. Establishing mentorship relationships with experienced indigent defense practitioners is a relatively low-cost way to address these deficits.

Over the next year, three jurisdictions - Westchester County, New York; Marquette County, Michigan; and Bexar County, Texas - will adapt a model mentoring guide developed by NLADA in 2015 and will have their process and results independently evaluated. In May and June, the TTA team conducted initial site visits in two of the three jurisdictions. Read more about this project in this fact sheet.

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.