SMU Deason Center Receives Combined $5 Million From Local and National Philanthropies for Continued Legal Defense Research and Advocacy

DALLAS (SMU) – In the five years since its inception, SMU Dedman School of Law’s Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center has rapidly grown from a startup with one employee to a public defense research powerhouse and a national leader in Sixth Amendment right to counsel advocacy. Now, the center’s founding donors and two additional philanthropic partners have directed additional funding to further support its mission and success.

In 2016, the Deason Foundation and the Charles Koch Foundation contributed the funding to create the Deason Center. The nonpartisan research center has since become a sought-after resource for studying and improving public defense services. Organizations across the country have used the center’s research and expertise to improve their understanding of indigent defense, the right to counsel, rural criminal legal systems, and prosecutorial discretion.

The Deason Foundation has now donated $2.5 million, a five-year gift that bolsters the center’s innovative research and data-driven advocacy for nonpartisan reform of the criminal legal system. The Deason Foundation’s renewed gift further supports SMU’s $1.5 billion campaign, SMU Ignited: Boldly Shaping Tomorrow, by enriching teaching and research at the Deason Center and strengthening the center’s reputation as a leader in public defense and pretrial due process.

“The Deason Foundation is so pleased with the results the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center has achieved in its first five years,” said Doug Deason, director of the Deason Foundation. “Together, a diverse group of donors and SMU experts, led by our incredible executive director Pamela Metzger, are achieving lasting improvements in our country’s criminal justice system. We are proud to renew our support to further the center’s impact.”

Another founding donor, the Charles Koch Foundation, is pledging $1,050,000 to support the center in 2023 – the largest one-year commitment the Deason Center has received.

“We are excited to continue our partnership with the Deason Center at SMU,” said Ryan Stowers, Executive Director of the Charles Koch Foundation. “The center works hard to find innovative solutions to the most pressing criminal justice reform issues, including changing the paradigm around the right to counsel. We look forward to the work the Deason Center will continue to do to break the barriers that prevent individuals from leading fulfilling lives.”

Arnold Ventures is also joining the list of national philanthropies investing in the Deason Center’s mission by supporting grants of more than $1.2 million to back research focused on pretrial due process and early access to counsel. A philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States, Arnold Ventures began supporting the Deason Center in 2021.

“These commitments illustrate the value of collaborations between philanthropies and leading research universities like SMU,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “The Deason Center’s innovative and actionable research makes tangible improvements in communities across the country. Those improvements are only possible because of significant donor support.”

The Deason Center’s work primarily focuses on three areas:

  • Advocating for the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. This includes researching strategies that improve public defense systems, promote prompt initial court appearances, reduce unnecessary detention, and ensure effective representation for any person accused of a crime.

  • Ensuring that small, tribal and rural (STAR) communities are part of the national criminal justice reform movement. This includes researching strategies to provide equal access to justice in areas where resources and lawyers are scarce.

  • Understanding and improving the process by which prosecutors decide how and when to charge a person with a crime. Researching prosecutorial charging discretion helps prosecutors nationwide adopt smart and sustainable practices in their communities.

“The Deason Center’s work advocating for criminal justice reform across the nation is incredibly important,” said Jason Nance, Judge James Noel Dean and Professor of Law at SMU Dedman School of Law. “I’m excited that our students have opportunities to be a part of this innovative research, and I’m looking forward to being a champion of the center’s success as their work expands.”

In addition to the support from national organizations, local donors are also investing in the Deason Center’s mission. The Chrest Foundation, a Dallas-based organization that supports criminal justice reform initiatives across the country, is supporting the center’s research partnership with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. The District Attorney Learning and Leadership through Application of Science (DALLAS) initiative investigates the impact of pretrial reforms on racial equity and due process. It also studies screening and charging workflows in the DA’s office, empowering Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot to make informed, data-driven decisions that reduce prosecutorial bottlenecks and increase pretrial release.

“These gifts help us vindicate the right to counsel, shine a light on issues surrounding formal charges and pretrial appearances, advocate for small, tribal, and rural (STAR) communities, and reform unjust practices that impact countless Americans,” said Pamela R. Metzger, SMU Dedman School of Law professor and Deason Center director. “We are incredibly grateful to the Deason Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, Arnold Ventures and the Chrest Foundation for supporting our work to bring a stats-and-stories approach to criminal legal reform.”