August 7, 2015

By Sebastian Maldonado

The College of Liberal Arts’ Public Policy Research Institute (PPRI) has received the Michael K. Moore Award – the State Bar of Texas’ highest recognition for research in indigent defense.

State agencies rely upon PPRI’s applied research capabilities to evaluate the effectiveness of publicly funded programs and to provide reports and analysis to inform policy making. As stated in their Guidelines for Indigent Defense Caseloads Report, approximately 80 percent of defendants rely on court-appointed counsel in the United States.

The honor is being given for research contributions addressing the problem of excessive caseloads among court-appointed attorneys. The study, which was mandated by the Texas Legislature, produced guidelines for the maximum number of clients a court-appointed attorney can defend while still providing reasonably effective representation to low-income defendants.

“We’re trying to help policymakers understand how much time is required to responsibly defend cases at different levels ranging from a Class B misdemeanor to a first-degree felony” said Dottie Carmichael, lead researcher of the effort.

The difference in the time that is being spent on cases compared to the time that should be spent can be translated into dollars, giving policymakers a solid assessment of the additional investment required to provide meaningful defense services. After considering the study findings, for the first time ever the 84th Legislature recently dedicated $4 million in General Revenue funding to supplement the court costs, fees and fines historically used to support indigent defense.

The Michael K. Moore Award was presented to PPRI team members at the Annual Meeting of the State Bar of Texas’ Criminal Division Attorneys held in San Antonio on July 27.

PPRI is unique within the College of Liberal Arts because all of their work is aimed at addressing real-world policy matters. The State Bar recognition caps a decade-long collaboration between PPRI and Texas Indigent Defense Commission (TIDC).

“Our relationship with PPRI has been a big part of our strategy, and the combination of research and policy has been powerful,” said James Bethke, executive director of TIDC. “It has given my agency information and tools to raise the quality of indigent defense in a number of ways.”

Over the years, PPRI has evaluated a series of innovations in indigent defense. By measuring impacts on efficiency and effectiveness, other counties notice and are encouraged to adopt best practices. From a national perspective, “Representatives from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Justice Statistics looking for indigent defense data in all 50 states have noted the online systems developed by PPRI put Texas light-years ahead of any other state,” Carmichael said. “It truly is government in the sunshine.”

One prior PPRI study was cited in the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision Rothgery v. Gillespie County that established the right to an attorney at arraignment.

“When Justice Souter named a PPRI study in the majority opinion, it certainly brought home the importance of the work,” PPRI Director Charles Johnson said. “Contributing to the fulfillment of the ‘legal representation’ clause of the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is critically significant. I am very proud of Dottie Carmichael and PPRI’s contributions to the criminal defense of poor people in Texas. It further is a strong example of the ability of the College of Liberal Arts to contribute to the social welfare of our state.”

Weighted Caseload Team Photo

Steve Wood, Trey Marchbanks, Terry Williams, Heather Caspers, Dottie Carmichael, Aaron Williams, Georges Naufal

Weighted Caseload Report Cover

Click to read, download or print