In May 2012, the National Institute of Justice issued a research solicitation for indigent defense. They set aside $1,000,000 to fund up to four studies. I am willing to bet that when this was developed, indigent defense for persons with mental illnesses was not an issue that was considered. I know it was not for me when I first saw the solicitation. Fortunately, such was not the case for the Vera Institute’s New York City staff.
PRA in partnership with Vera developed a proposal to respond to this solicitation. During the development of this proposal, it was amazing to see just how little work had ever been done looking at the defendants with mental illnesses-public defender relationships. We have almost no empirical data on what mutual expectations are, what dilemmas are faced by the attorneys, what level of satisfaction criminal defendants with mental illness have, or what the outcomes are of different types of cases for different types of defendants.
Only time will tell if our proposal is funded, but regardless it was a real eye opener to recognize how bereft this area is of informed guidelines for appropriate practice. With about 16% of all persons booked into US jails being seriously mentally ill, these issues should be much more pressing than they have been to this point.