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Program Profile: Indigent Defense for Homicide Cases (Philadelphia, Penn.)

Evidence Rating: Promising - One study Promising - One study

Date: This profile was posted on February 11, 2014

Program Summary

Indigent defense involves the constitutionally mandated free representation for those accused of crimes who are unable to afford representation. The program is rated Promising. Defendants were less likely convicted of murder, had shorter sentences and spent fewer years in prison than defendants represented by private counsel. The probability of receiving a life, minimum or maximum sentence was reduced. There was no conclusion on death sentences or statistical differences for guilty rates.

This program’s rating is based on evidence that includes at least one high-quality randomized controlled trial.

Program Description

Program Goals/Program Components
Indigent defense involves the constitutionally mandated free representation of individuals accused of crimes who are unable to afford private representation. States, counties, and local jurisdictions utilized various methods to provide indigent defense to defendants who cannot afford a lawyer, including a public defender office, an assigned counsel system, or a contract system (Office of Justice Programs 2011). In Philadelphia, the indigent defense system relies on both public defenders and private counsel. Pennsylvania is the only state in which each county is solely responsible for funding indigent defense without any assistance from the state; therefore, the costs are backed by the city of Philadelphia (Anderson and Heaton 2013, 4).

Prior to 1993, the Defender Association of Philadelphia represented almost all indigent defendants accused of crime with the exception of those accused of murder. However, beginning on April 1, 1993, every fifth indigent murder case became sequentially assigned at the preliminary arraignment to be represented by attorneys from the Defender Association, while the other four cases are assigned to appointed counsel.

In Philadelphia, after a defendant is arrested for murder, they must receive a preliminary arraignment. At the arraignment, the court magistrate reviews information about the defendant compiled by the court’s pretrial unit in order to determine if the defendant can afford counsel. As a result of the change in 1993, if the defendant in a case with a murder charge is unlikely to be able to afford counsel, the magistrate appoints either the Defender Association or a to-be-determined appointed counsel to represent the defendant.

The Defender Association has a homicide unit, which consists of 10 experienced public defenders who have familiarity and understanding of practicing law in the Philadelphia court system. Every case is staffed by two lawyers, and one or more investigators and mitigation specialists as needed. All staff are salaried, and the unit has access to a limited set of funds to hire expert witnesses. All lawyers are full-time Assistant Defenders who are members of the Pennsylvania Bar and are not permitted to maintain a private practice or to participate in partisan political activity (Defender Association of Philadelphia 2013).

In contrast, defendants not represented by the Defender Association are assigned counsel by a judge from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. These attorneys are from private practices; however, in these cases, they function as a public defender, but are compensated differently. Specifically, for murder cases (both capital and non-capital cases), assigned counsel receive a flat fee for pretrial preparation, and are paid a stipulated amount each day if the case goes to trial.  

Evaluation Outcomes

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Study 1
Found Guilty of Any Charge
Anderson and Heaton (2013) found that although defendants randomly assigned to be represented by attorneys from the Defender Association of Philadelphia had a slightly lower overall guilty rate compared with defendants appointed to private counsel, the difference was not statistically significant.

Found Guilty of Murder
Defendants represented by Defender Association attorneys were 11 percentage points less likely to be convicted of murder compared with otherwise similar defendants represented by private counsel (a statistically significant difference).

Average Sentence Length
The average sentence length for defendants represented by the Defender Association was almost 2 years shorter when compared with otherwise similar defendants represented by private counsel (a statistically significant difference).

Expected Time Served
Defendants represented by the Defender Association were expected to spend more than 2.5 fewer years in prison compared with otherwise similar defendants represented by private counsel (a statistically significant difference).

Life Sentence
Representation by the Defender Association reduced the probability of receiving a life sentence by 16 percentage points when compared to similar defendants represented by private counsel (a statistically significant difference).

Death Sentence
Although representation by the Defender Association did not appear to impact the probability of receiving the death penalty when compared to similar defendants represented by private counsel, the data from which this conclusion was drawn is very small; therefore, confidence cannot be placed in this outcome. 

Minimum Sentence
The minimum sentence was reduced by more than 1 year for defendants represented by the Defender Association compared with otherwise similar defendants represented by private counsel (although the difference was not statistically significant).

Maximum Sentence
The maximum sentence was reduced by more than 3 years for defendants represented by the Defender Association compared with otherwise similar defendants represented by private counsel (although the difference was not statistically significant).

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Evaluation Methodology

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Study 1
Anderson and Heaton (2013) used a natural experiment to measure the difference that a lawyer makes in homicide cases being processed in Philadelphia, Penn. Since April 1993, every fifth murder case has been sequentially assigned at the preliminary arraignment to the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The other four cases are assigned to appointed counsel. The treatment group (n=480) included cases with Defender Association attorneys and the control group (n=2,677) included cases with appointed counsel.

The sample of defendants assigned private counsel was predominately male (73 percent) and black (93 percent) with an average age of 25.7 years. The sample of defendants assigned to be represented by the Defender Association was also predominately male (74 percent) and black (95 percent) with an average age of 26.3 years. There were no significant differences between the groups on demographic characteristics.

The dataset came from the Philadelphia Courts and included a sample of 3,412 defendants charged with murder in municipal court between 1994 and 2005. This information was supplemented by collecting both the Municipal Court and Court of Common Pleas dockets for all of the cases in the sample from the Pennsylvania Judiciary’s online docket database. To identify defendants assigned to the Defender Association based on the 1-in-5 rule, case logs provided by the Defender Association were examined. After eliminating defendants with missing data, those who could not be matched to the logs, or those with other data anomalies, this left a final sample of 3,157 defendants.

The sentencing data reported on maximum and/or minimum sentences for each defendant, as well as life and death sentences. The expected time to be served in prison was calculated based on data from the National Corrections Reporting Program.

After defendants were assigned, there was some “crossover” between the treatment (Defender Association defense counsel) and control (appointed counsel) groups. For example, some defendants hired private defense counsel who replaced either the appointed counsel or the public defender. In some instances, there was a conflict of interest identified that prohibited the public defender from representing the defendant. To address the issue of crossover, an instrumental variables (IV) analysis was used. The IV methods allowed the study authors to exploit the randomness of the initial assignment to estimate the causal impact of public defender representation. Additionally, the IV methods allowed the authors to estimate the impact of public defender representation even when there is non-random sorting of defendants across different types of attorneys subsequent to the initial assignment. The IV analysis allowed for additional covariates to be controlled, yielding more precise estimates of attorney impacts.

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Cost

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There is no cost information available for this program.
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Implementation Information

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More information about the Defender Association of Philadelphia can be found at the organization’s Web site.
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Evidence-Base (Studies Reviewed)

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These sources were used in the development of the program profile:

Study 1
Anderson, James M., and Paul Heaton. 2013. Measuring the Effect of Defense Counsel on Homicide Case Outcomes. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.
https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/241158.pdf
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Additional References

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These sources were used in the development of the program profile:

Office of Justice Programs. 2011. OJP Fact Sheet: Indigent Defense. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
http://www.ojp.gov/newsroom/factsheets/ojpfs_indigentdefense.html

Defender Association of Philadelphia. 2013. “About Us.” Accessed November 8, 2013.
http://www.philadefender.org/index.php
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Program Snapshot

Age: 18+

Gender: Both

Race/Ethnicity: Black, Other

Geography: Urban

Setting (Delivery): Courts

Program Type: Court Processing

Targeted Population: Serious/Violent Offender

Current Program Status: Active

Program Director:
Defender Association of Philadelphia
1441 Sansom Street
Philadelphia PA 19102
Phone: 215.568.3190
Website

Researcher:
James M. Anderson
Senior Behavioral Scientist and Core Faculty, Pardee RAND Graduate School
RAND Corporation
4570 Fifth Avenue, Suite 600
Pittsburgh PA 15213-2665
Phone: 412.683.2300 ext: 4677
Website
Email

Researcher:
Paul Heaton
Senior Economist, RAND Corporation and Professor, Pardee RAND Graduate School
RAND Corporation
1776 Main Street
Santa Monica CA 90407-2138
Phone: 310.393.0411 ext: 7526
Fax: 310.260.8156
Website
Email