Across the U.S., Public Defender Offices Focusing on Data, Analytics to Drive Change

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Data can provide more transparency and accountability to a system that is struggling to keep up with growing cases and overworked attorneys.

By Matt Keyser

At any moment, Erik Stilling can pull up a database on his computer and have a wealth of information about Louisiana’s public defense system at his fingertips.

With a few clicks, Stilling can see how many active cases the East Baton Rouge Office of the Public Defender is working.

At the Jefferson Parish Public Defender, he can view the breakdown of felony and misdemeanor cases.

And at the Orleans Parish Defenders, an office in which attorneys are overwhelmed with cases, Stilling can see how many cases each individual attorney carries.

Armed with such vital information from 42 statewide offices that represent more than 200,000 criminal cases per year, Stilling can readily identify issues within the system.

“Data and analytics are extremely valuable tools” in the service of criminal justice reform, said Stilling, who’s worked as the information and technology management director at the Louisiana Public Defender Board for the past 12 years. “Especially when you have such large numbers of clients, cases and attorneys as we do, because trends and averages become both very visible and quite reliable and valid.

“When we can see trends and averages, we can see where improvements need to be made. Without such tools, we are likely to be forced to do things the way we always did them, which is the antithesis of reform.”

In the past decade, there’s been a shift across the nation in the public defense sector to collect more reliable data—such as timekeeping and caseloads—which had been largely ignored as public defense attorneys worked unencumbered by timesheets and numbers-driven oversight.

At a time when many offices are facing budget shortfalls and burdensome caseloads that, in turn, lead to overworked public defenders with little time and fewer resources to properly do their jobs, advocates for reform stress that data and analytics can be the solutions.

The data, said Stephen Hanlon, can provide concrete evidence of a broken system rather than relying on anecdotal stories and taking a business-as-usual approach.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” said Hanlon, once a lawyer at a national law firm who’s now a leading advocate for public defense reform. “And we’re getting reliable, 21st century data and analytics right now.”

In Missouri—a state that, like Louisiana, has invested heavily in a data-driven approach—Hanlon conducted a 2013 study that showed public defenders carried caseloads at a rate three times higher than they could competently handle. In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled that judges can’t force public defense attorneys already burdened with an excessive caseload to take on more cases because it’s both unethical and unconstitutional. It was the first ruling of its kind in the United States.

Hanlon has a vision for how the public defense system will look in the next decade, in which attorneys can better advocate for their clients by better advocating for themselves.

Rather than public defenders continuing to accept burdensome caseloads, Hanlon believes by using case management systems—much like the one Stilling uses in Louisiana—the attorneys will be able to give timely insight to judges about their work.

For a case in which a person was charged with a high-level felony, Hanlon said a public defense attorney, armed with the proper data, could argue it down to a low-level felony because they don’t have the time to dedicate to a high-level case. In instances of cases that don’t pose a threat to public safety, Hanlon said, those charges could be dropped and the person diverted to a treatment program.

Doing so, Hanlon said, will reduce overcharging by prosecutors, shorter sentences, and overall a better criminal justice system.

But change isn’t always easy.

While there are success stories with data-driven approaches in states such as Louisiana, Missouri, Colorado, and Rhode Island, Hanlon said there are also failures, too.

Those failures can arise from the lack of funding to implement a case management system. Some public defender offices are also unwilling to buy in to the advantages of data. (Hanlon and others interviewed for this article said public defenders do the work to help people and not be micromanaged. “They don’t want to be told what to do,” Hanlon said.)

In Louisiana, Stilling, with the state’s public defense board, said there was a lot of buy-in to the data early on, which has benefitted the system as a whole.

In 2008 when Stilling was hired by the board, he worked to implement a new case management system that detailed everything from financial reports and caseloads and provided real-time analytics for all of the state’s 42 district offices.

“At the local level, data is very important in office management,” Stilling said. “It is vital in financial and human resource management decision-making regarding case assignment, performance, outcomes, training needs assessments, resource allocation, transparency and accountability.”

The data expand far beyond the local level, too. All federal public defender offices are required to track detailed data, especially with timekeeping to ensure attorneys aren’t overworked.

That federal approach could soon trickle down to the state level with the EQUAL Defense Act of 2019, a bill currently before Congress. If passed, the bill would provide federal money—and fund what Hanlon calls an “unfunded federal judicial mandate”—to local public defender offices. The bill would establish workload limits and bridge the divide in pay between public defenders and prosecutors. But those dollars would come with stipulations, including that each office has a case management system and actively tracks timekeeping and caseloads.

Stilling helped write the data requirements for the bill. When asked what it means to see federal legislation aiming to reform the nation’s public defense system, Stilling said, “It’s about damn time.”

Though there’s increasing support for reform for the nation’s public defense system, largely driven by data, Stilling said data aren’t the final answer.

“The practice of law at the individual case level is more of an art and certain questions about that practice may not lend themselves to quantitative analysis,” he said.

He then paraphrased the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, who once said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you are tempted to treat everything as though it were a nail.”

Said Stilling, “These analytic tools don’t solve every problem. But for the right problems, they do a bang-up job—in the best sense of the phrase.”

Read more: An Unfair Fight: Public Defenders Nationwide Battle System with Fewer Resources, Burdensome Caseloads