Deason Center Wins Federal Grant to Study American Public Defense Systems

U.S. Department of Justice grant will fund the Deason Center’s study of five jurisdictions that recently implemented new public defense practices

The Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at SMU’s Dedman School of Law is launching an ambitious research project that aims to help state and local leaders improve public defense. The study is funded by a prestigious grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which is the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

The $800,000 grant will enable the Deason Center to study five local public defense systems in four states. To determine whether new public defense structures were associated with significant change, researchers will collect and compare data about pre- and post-implementation representation rates, pretrial detention rates and case outcomes.

The anonymous study sites use different methods to deliver and fund public defense services. They represent rural, suburban, and urban communities and are located across the East Coast, South, Midwest, and Southwest.

“Across the country, public defense policymakers are grappling with how best to deliver public defense services and honor the Sixth Amendment right to counsel,” said Pamela Metzger, executive director of the Deason Center. “Experts and advocates have long called for more data and clearer policy guidance about how to uphold this vital constitutional principle. This project will offer important insights about best practices and will help to ensure that every arrested person receives the zealous defense that they deserve.”

Using a “research for reform” model, the Deason Center prioritizes projects that produce actionable recommendations. Therefore, in addition to the final report to NIJ, the Center plans to publish scholarly articles and policy briefs, as well as findings and recommendations for each studied jurisdiction.

“Research on public defense system structures is consistently among the highest research priorities for both public defenders and criminal justice scientists,” said Andrew Davies, Deason Center research director and principal investigator on the project. “This project will contribute significantly to the field by studying how structural changes to defense systems impact the timing and frequency with which arrested people receive appointed counsel.

Deason Center researchers have started initial work on the project and plan to complete their study by the end of 2026.


The Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at SMU Dedman School of Law brings a stats and stories approach to criminal justice reform. The Center collects, analyzes, and assesses the hard data about criminal legal policy. Combining these data with the stories of people who live, work and struggle in the criminal legal system, the Deason Center makes a compelling case for reform. The Center supports data-driven criminal justice research that has utility across multiple jurisdictions and helps criminal legal stakeholders develop and implement best practices.