Defenders Doing Data
In November, defenders and researchers will gather together in a special series of panels at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in San Francisco to discuss data and research on indigent defense. We’ll be covering everything from the latest social science in the area to the kinds of data collection every defender should be doing every day. It’s a meeting that I hope NAPD members will attend, partly because data are increasingly important in our professional lives, and partly because this will be the first chance to hear the results of a recent wave of Federally-funded research in our area.
Many defenders will know that since 2012 the DOJ has, through its various arms, begun to fund a small number of indigent defense projects on subjects like performance measurement in Massachusetts, appellate social workers in Michigan, standards compliance across the nation, holistic representation in the Bronx, and representing mentally disordered clients among others. Most recently, my office (in conjunction with our academic colleagues at SUNY Albany) was funded to conduct the nation’s first ever study of early intervention by counsel in non-urban jurisdictions. These projects, separately and in combination, represent the greatest dedication of Federal funds to research in our area for at least a decade (if not a generation) and constitute a moment when knowledge and information in our discipline can take unprecedented steps forward.
This is all very new. In recent years, data and analysis in criminal justice has been almost synonymous with law enforcement and crime prevention (and, recently, risk assessment in criminal sentencing). Law enforcement agencies themselves have almost all built up their data collection capabilities to compete for grant funding, appear transparent, and demonstrate their effectiveness. It’s left some in the defender community wondering whether we haven’t been left behind. Shouldn’t defenders be ‘doing data’ too?
I think we should be ‘doing data’, and that’s why we’re having this meeting. But I don’t think we should be doing it because we might be falling behind our counterparts in law enforcement. I think we should be doing it because ‘doing data’ is really just a way of saying we should know more about what we do. Doing data – which I think means any kind of systematic recording of objective information that you can analyze to learn more about your practice – is really about having good, reliable and meaningful information to hand that allows you to describe your work. It’s about being able to answer questions like ‘what is it that you do in your office?’ and ‘how is the program going?’ convincingly, with facts.
Data can have its downsides, of course. You might worry your data won’t show what you want them to show. You might worry about them being misinterpreted. You might think people will take your data and use the information against you. I’ve been working with data for years and I can tell you that unless you are very very lucky, all of that will happen, and probably more.
But there is one thing that data should always do for you: it should always make you smarter. It may not tell you what you wanted to hear, but it does have the power at times to tell you the truth. And when that happens, you can start learning new things and trying different strategies. Maybe the data show you get excellent outcomes for your clients. Congratulations. Maybe they show you don’t. Maybe they show you’re facing challenges, that there are things you should be doing that you’re not doing, or can’t do. The picture might be sobering and complex, and you might be left with more questions than answers. But whatever they look like, your data should be a starting point for thinking creatively about how to improve the picture you see. Given the choice between knowing more about what you are doing and knowing less, wouldn’t you rather know more?
There is an end-game to this process, and it’s called ‘evidence-based policy’. EBP, as it’s known to friends and foes alike, is simply the idea that all public policy should be based on objective evidence of its effectiveness. At present, in indigent defense, EBP is virtually non-existent. This Federal funding clearly aims to change that, and the President’s proposal for 2014-15 included millions of dollars in new funding for indigent defense research and program developments. Almost all of that funding will be distributed exclusively to defender operations which have sophisticated data collection and analysis capabilities already in place such that they are able to assess objectively whether the funded reforms actually work. You should expect to hear terms like ‘Smart Public Defense’ and ‘Data-Driven Policy’ more and more.
This drive toward data will not, I imagine, be greeted with universal acclaim in the defense community. In fact, the impact of data and analysis on our community is probably worthy of a PhD dissertation or two in its own right. But one thing is clear: having good information is increasingly an expectation that policy-makers and the public have of all public servants, and not only those for whom surveillance and detection are already a part of their jobs. I think it should be an expectation we have of ourselves too. So with that in mind, I hope to see you all in November!