PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In addition to guaranteeing an individual’s right to trial by jury, the Sixth Amendment mandates that the government provide legal representation to any and all criminal defendants who want it.
According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the vast majority of felony defendants rely on some form of government-supplied representation. In 2006, 80% of defendants charged with a felony in the nation’s 75 largest counties relied on a public defender or assigned counsel. But spending on public defense per capita is low in all states, and the U.S. leads the world in incarceration rate. If states increased spending on their respective public defender programs, would there be fewer people in prison?
That’s a question that Josh Bricker, a rising senior double-concentrating in economics and mathematics, is trying to answer.
This summer, Bricker is working closely with Professor of Economics Anna Aizer to test the hypothesis that increasing spending on public defenders may improve the quality of legal counsel they offer — thus lowering incarceration rates. Bricker said that more funding would mean governments could improve the quality of defender training, increase oversight, and hire more defenders, potentially reducing individuals’ caseloads. “Those are all things that we would expect to improve the quality of the legal representation provided,” he said.
Proving — or disproving — that requires a nuanced approach. If Bricker and Aizer were simply to graph spending on public defenders against incarceration rates, they would merely learn if there is a correlation between the two, he said. To determine whether or not increases in public defense spending actually affect incarceration rates, Bricker and Aizer are analyzing data from systemic litigation cases — lawsuits alleging that the state or county is failing to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide effective counsel.
Bricker said the outcomes of these court cases are usually some sort of mandate requiring that the state or county in question increase spending for public defenders. Parsing through those cases and identifying instances where public defender budgets increased significantly will make it possible to see whether limited public defender spending contributes to increased incarceration rates.