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President's Introductory Remarks: Diversity in Indigent Defense Research

IDRA collaborated with the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center to host a panel discussion on Diversity in Indigent Defense Research, on February 17, 2023. 

Speaking at the event were: 

IDRA President, Andy Davies, delivered the following introductory remarks at the start of the event.

Welcome and thank you for joining us here today for this discussion of Diversity in Indigent Defense Research, a collaborative event hosted by the Indigent Defense Research Association, IDRA, and the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center. I am happy to be here and in a moment I’ll pass over to my colleague Kenitra Brown from the Deason Center who will be moderating today’s panel.

As well as being the Deason Center’s Research Director, I’m also the President of IDRA. IDRA is a virtual, interdisciplinary community of practitioners and researchers dedicated, in the words of its Statement of Purpose, to “promot[ing] the use of research and the scientific method to improve understanding of public defense services.” It goes on to say that “We believe public defense can play a crucial role in the preservation of the rule of law and core constitutional principles including equal protection, due process and the right to counsel, and that neglect of defense services risks injustice and harm.”

In light of those commitments, I was grateful to be reminded by today’s panelists of the words of Shaun Ossei-Owusu and Atinuke Adediran, the former a professor at Penn and the latter at Fordham.

[S]egments of public interest law often get a pass on questions of race because it is a field of law that is genuinely concerned with marginalized communities. But the historical record, the dearth of empirical data on race, the homogeneity of the legal profession, and the recognition that no one is necessarily immune from racial biases all demand that the public interest bar reckon with its racial character.

Today we raise the same issues around indigent defense research and researchers. Is indigent defense research late to questions about race and racial diversity in criminal justice? While there are other kinds of diversity and dimensions of privilege that could and should be discussed – gender, class, disability, neurodiversity to name a few – racial disparities in the criminal legal system are about the most well documented, regularly observed facts about this system that there are.

And yet we know very little about the racial demographics of indigent defense researchers. A recent survey of IDRA members suggests that this group is an overwhelmingly white space. And – with the enormously important exceptions of ongoing work by scholars like Matthew Clair and Nicole van Cleve and the scholars here today – empirical work in this field doesn’t often grapple with questions of race directly. Research in our field, and you can see this in our monthly lists of new publications, is dominated by touchstone questions like ‘do public defenders get better outcomes than assigned counsel?’, ‘is early representation by a lawyer beneficial?’ and ‘how much funding should we give to indigent defense systems anyway?’ These questions, most of the time, are asked and answered without reference to race at all.

So the questions I come with to today’s session are:

  1. What are we missing as a research community if we don’t have racial diversity among our researchers?
  2. What research are we not thinking of doing that we should be doing?
  3. And what have we done to create this space in the way it is? What is our complicity in making a space that is overwhelmingly white, and what should we be doing to diversify it in future?

With that, my role is done. My only remaining job is to monitor the chat in the meeting to select questions that I’ll feed to Kenitra to put to the panel at the end of the session – so please do write your questions in there! Now, over to Kenitra.