Date August 12, 2021
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Josh Bricker: Investigating whether low public defender spending explains high incarceration rates

As a summer research assistant, the rising senior is analyzing decades of data to investigate whether increasing spending on state public defender programs could lower America’s uniquely high incarceration rate.

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. 

I think that most people would agree on moral ground that the effectiveness of your public defender shouldn’t depend on how frugal your state or local government chooses to be.

Josh Bricker Class of 2022
Bricker 2

“In theory, we want to isolate the effect on incarceration rates of changes in spending on public defenders that come directly from the court cases themselves,” he said. 

Bricker has worked with Aizer previously, assisting her with a project last summer in which he collected 14 years’ worth of data to chart how government spending on children has evolved across states and over time, with a particular eye to how spending was impacted around and after the Great Recession. 

“I really enjoy working with Anna, because she strikes a really nice balance between independence and hand-holding,” Bricker said.  “She kind of steers me in the right direction from a higher level.” 

He got so much out of the experience that he approached Aizer last fall, asking if she would like to collaborate again and apply for a Summer/Semester Projects for Research, Internships and Teaching (SPRINT) Award, and their current project was born. 

Bricker was drawn to the duality of its nature: Though it’s an economics project that deals heavily with hard data analysis and coding, Bricker said there are crucial moral considerations that make the work important.

“I think that most people would agree on moral ground that the effectiveness of your public defender shouldn’t depend on how frugal your state or local government chooses to be,” he said. 

States may also be able to use the study’s results to conduct cost benefit analyses of their spending on public defenders — an especially valuable prospect, given the high costs associated with incarcerating people. “If we find that increasing spending on public defenders does decrease incarceration rates, it would definitely call into question how much states were spending on the two,” Bricker said. “And there may be potential to save money.” 

For the past couple of months, Bricker has collected this data on public defense expenditures, as well as arrest rates, incarceration rates, and a few other different legal outcomes. It’s a job he says is surprisingly tricky: Because each state runs its own public defender program, there are differences in the programs themselves and the nature of the data they collect.

 “I had to go basically state by state and see what data, if any, each state is collecting and whether it’s public use,” he said.

The research is still underway, but Bricker said they’ve already successfully found good data in states that have county-level programs. In those programs, rather than simply providing one expenditure number for the entire state, there are data points for each year in each county, which makes it possible for Bricker to conduct analysis between counties within the state.

In other cases where data is publicly available, Bricker said it is often very messy, with some datasets incorrectly formatted, duplicated, incomplete or corrupted. He cleans it up in a statistical software program called Stata, generating graphs and tables and doing regression, and presents it to Aizer at their regular meetings, where they go over the results from the previous week and discuss the game plan for the one ahead. 

That guidance is invaluable to Bricker, who will begin applying to economics Ph.D. programs in the fall — a decision he said was shaped in large part by his current and past research experiences at Brown. From bolstering his coding skills to directly applying the concepts he learned in classes like econometrics and statistics, Bricker said he feels confident and prepared for the path ahead.

“Before this, I don’t think I ever really knew what it actually means to conduct research,” he said.  “These projects have been really helpful in giving me firsthand experience in what it actually looks and feels like to do research as an economist.”