Cover: An Evaluation of California's Indigent Defense Grant Program

An Evaluation of California's Indigent Defense Grant Program

Published Apr 9, 2024

by Stephanie Brooks Holliday, Nicholas M. Pace, Nastassia Reed, Rosemary Li

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Research Questions

  1. How did public defenders' offices use IDGP funds?
  2. What did the IDGP funds enable public defenders' offices to accomplish during the grant period?
  3. What statewide lessons were learned about implementing this type of 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.

Key Findings

  • The most common grant-funded hires were attorneys, law clerks or law students, and administrative assistants. Grant-funded personnel performed a variety of tasks, including taking on misdemeanor caseloads to reduce burden on attorneys already on staff and working toward diversion and postconviction relief for clients.
  • Funds were also used to support training that otherwise would have been unavailable, especially for attorneys and investigators. Trainings covered a variety of topics, including capital sentencing, defending clients with mental health concerns, and forensic science.
  • Offices used funds for a variety of client-focused and case support services, such as expert witnesses, immigration support, interpreters, and providing basic necessities to clients (e.g., hygiene kits).
  • Grantees reported that they were able to make progress toward the goals established in their grant applications. Common goals included increasing knowledge and skills of staff in their offices; improving attorney and staff workloads; and providing client services related to behavioral health and other well-being.
  • Grantees experienced some challenges in accomplishing their grant-funded goals, including hiring and retention difficulties, delays outside the control of the offices, and data and technology limitations. They also described barriers to using their grant funds in anticipated ways, such as the costs and burdens of grant administration.
  • Grantees identified the features of the grant program that maximized its impact on their work, including flexibility in how they used the funds, and suggested opportunities for improvement, such as increasing the minimum funding allocation.

Recommendations

  • Continue to allow flexibility in the use of funds for general office improvement.
  • Collect detailed information about office workloads and consider targeted distributions of funding where caseloads are excessive.
  • Set a minimum funding level for grant allocations.
  • Extend the grant time frame to account for approval processes at the state and local level and other delays.
  • Provide a means for extending the authorized spending period for personnel under appropriate circumstances.
  • Revisit requirements related to local evaluation.
  • Provide support for grant administration.
  • Consider expanding eligibility for the grant program to privately operated public defense providers.
  • Continue to limit state grants for general office improvement to small to medium-sized counties for the near-term future.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the California Board of State and Community Corrections and conducted in the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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