Vera’s Substance Use and Mental Health Program launched a project to study the role of indigent defense, commonly known as public defense, for defendants with mental health disorders (MHD) in January 2013. With support from the National Institute of Justice, this work aims to 1) enhance understanding of the challenges faced by indigent defenders and their clients with MHD; 2) improve outcomes for defendants with MHD; and 3) inform the development of guidelines and training materials for defense attorneys that address common challenges to providing indigent defense for people with MHD. 

In partnership with Policy Research Associates, Vera is conducting this study in two New York State counties (Bronx and a county upstate) in order to reflect the variety of issues faced in different jurisdictions. The research team will use a mixed-methods approach, collecting qualitative and quantitative data. Research will include 1) paired interviews with clients with MHD and the indigent defenders assigned to represent them; 2) a review of defense agency policies, caseloads, and resources; and 3) analysis of administrative data records for defendants with MHD. There will be two phases of interviews: baseline interviews, which will occur shortly after arraignment while defendants are held in pretrial custody, and follow-up interviews soon after the case is resolved. Interview topics will include the needs, perceptions and priorities of defendants; attorney perceptions of client needs; defense strategies; client and attorney perceptions of client-attorney interactions; and post-disposition reflections on the case, including attorney and client satisfaction with case outcomes and representation. The review of defense agency policies, caseloads, and resources will describe the resources available to defenders representing clients with MHD in the two study jurisdictions. Researchers will use administrative data to track cases involving defendants with MHD, describing patterns in charge types, legal representation, flow through the court system, outcome, and sentence.

Why study the role of indigent defense for people with mental health disorders?

People with MHD are over-represented in the justice system and it is imperative that defenders have the skills and resources to provide proper representation to this population. Yet, currently there is little guidance for attorneys representing clients with MHD and no empirical foundation to inform the development of such guidelines. The goal of this study is to provide a basis for the creation of guidelines to improve representation for defendants with MHD, thereby improving individual outcomes, bolstering public safety, and making the most efficient use of limited resources.

For more information, contact Ayesha Delany-Brumsey, director of the Substance Use and Mental Health Program.

This project was supported by Award No. 2012-R2-CX-0009 awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this web page are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.


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Director, Substance Use and Mental Health Program