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Notable Recent Publications, April 2024

Notable Recent Publications features the latest empirical research and data related to indigent defense. If you have suggestions, ideas for work that should be included, or trouble accessing any of the articles featured, please write to Venita Embry at


Baćak, V., Lageson, S., & Powell, K. (2024). The Stress of Injustice: Public Defenders and the Frontline of American Inequality. Social Forces. Available for download: link.

Fairness in the criminal legal system is unattainable without effective legal representation of indigent defendants, yet we know little about the experience of attorneys who do this critical work. Using semi-structured interviews, our study investigated occupational stress in a sample of 78 attorneys representing indigent clients across the United States. We show how the chronic stressors experienced at work culminate in what we define as the stress of injustice: the social and psychological demands of working in a punitive system with laws and practices that target and punish those who are the most disadvantaged. Respondents positioned their professional stress around structural, not individual, aspects of the American criminal legal system, specifically punitive excess, underfunding of indigent defense, and the criminalization of mental illness and substance use. Working within these interrelated structural constraints makes public defenders highly vulnerable to stress and attrition.

Jin, A., & Salehi, N. (2024). (Beyond) Reasonable Doubt: Challenges that Public Defenders Face in Scrutinizing AI in Court

Accountable use of AI systems in high-stakes settings relies on making systems contestable. In this paper we study efforts to contest AI systems in practice by studying how public defenders scrutinize AI in court. We present findings from interviews with 17 people in the U.S. public defense community to understand their perceptions of and experiences scrutinizing computational forensic software (CFS) -- automated decision systems that the government uses to convict and incarcerate, such as facial recognition, gunshot detection, and probabilistic genotyping tools. We find that our participants faced challenges assessing and contesting CFS reliability due to difficulties (a) navigating how CFS is developed and used, (b) overcoming judges and jurors' non-critical perceptions of CFS, and (c) gathering CFS expertise. To conclude, we provide recommendations that center the technical, social, and institutional context to better position interventions such as performance evaluations to support contestability in practice.

Michael Perlin, Heather Cucolo, and Deborah Dorfman, “I Saw Guns and Sharp Swords in the Hands of Young Children”: Why Mental Health Courts for Juveniles with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum/Disorder Are Needed, 19 Nw. J. L. & Soc. Pol'y. 228 (2024).

In this Article, we offer—we believe for the first time in the scholarly literature—a potentially (at least partially) ameliorative solution to the problems faced by persons with autism (ASD) and fetal alcohol disorder (FASD) in the criminal justice system: the creation of (separate sets of) problem-solving juvenile mental health courts specifically to deal with cases of juveniles in the criminal justice system with ASD, and with FASD. There is currently at least one juvenile mental health court that explicitly accepts juveniles with autism, but there are, to the best of our knowledge, no courts set up specifically for these two discrete sets of populations. If mental health courts (or any other sort of problem-solving courts) are to work effectively, they must operate in accordance with therapeutic jurisprudence principles, concluding that law should value psychological health, should strive to avoid imposing anti-therapeutic consequences whenever possible, and when consistent with other values served by law should attempt to bring about healing and wellness. If such courts are created, we believe this will (1) make it less likely that sanism and other forms of bias affect legal decision-making; (2) make it more likely that those aspects of the defendants’ underlying conditions that may have precipitated (or contributed to) their criminal behavior be placed in a context that understands such conditions, and (3) best ensure that therapeutic jurisprudence principles be employed in the dispositions of all cases.

Sugrue, E., & Fritz, M. (2024). Social Work Practica in Family Defense: A Model for Critical Field Education. Critical Social Work25(1). Over the last two decades, a growing movement in social work education has called for the centering of anti-oppressive and critical approaches. As field education is considered social work’s “signature pedagogy,” it must central to any program of critical social work education. This study uses a multiple case study design (Creswell & Poth, 2017) to explore a type of field education site that explicitly engages in the activism and resistance work inherent in critical practice – holistic family defense. We interviewed ten social work field instructors from nine different family defense practices about their internship programs’ structure, goals, and perceived outcomes and their recommendations for expanding social work practica in family defense and related contexts. Results illustrate how field placements in family defense practices allow students to increase their awareness of how racism, classism, and misogyny are enacted and reproduced through government systems, learn to question the dominant discourses around ideas of “protecting children,” re-examine social work’s participation and collusion in systems of control, and engage in the direct work of challenging systems of oppression and injustice. We conclude with recommendations for expanding social work practica in family defense and developing additional sites for critical field education.


Stephanie Brooks Holliday, Nicholas M. Pace, Nastassia Reed, Rosemary Li (2024). An Evaluation of California's Indigent Defense Grant Program.

In 2020, California took steps to address intercounty variation and shortcomings in indigent defense resources through the Indigent Defense Grant Program (IDGP), which provided $9.8 million to public defenders' offices in small to medium-sized counties (in terms of population). An adequate understanding of the implementation and outcomes of the projects initiated by grantees is critical to identifying ways to improve the effectiveness of indigent defense across the state and achieve the underlying goals of the IDGP. In this report, authors detail the ways that grantees used program funds, what the funds enabled offices to accomplish during the grant period, and statewide lessons learned from this program. The authors also make recommendations for future grant programs focused on public defenders' offices.