Ending injustice

How the Deason Center is helping reform a constitutional crisis across the nation

In theory, the U.S. Constitution guarantees every American access to the court system, a right to legal counsel, and a fair and speedy trial. A landmark report published by the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center found that, in practice, these guarantees often turn into broken promises.

Housed in the SMU Dedman School of Law, the Deason Center has become a powerhouse in public defense research during its five years of operation, thanks to generous gifts from donors and the groundbreaking research being conducted there.

Funding from the Deason Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, Arnold Ventures and the Chrest Foundation allows the center to produce some of the most comprehensive studies to date on the state of criminal justice procedure as it relates to the initial appearance crisis.

The initial appearance is the first time an arrested person is advised of their rights, informed of the charges and presented with the right to counsel. This is usually the defendant’s first chance to contest charges and request pretrial release.

The center’s report, “Ending Injustice: Solving the Initial Appearance Crisis,” exposes systemic flaws in the criminal justice system that often prevent the initial appearance process from running smoothly.

The report is sparking conversations and partnerships with local judicial authorities and is being amplified by the American Bar Association. The report shows that defendants may wait days, weeks or, sometimes, months behind bars before seeing a judge or even meeting with a lawyer. Without an initial appearance, defendants cannot argue for pretrial release or find out the facts of their case.

Only four states require an initial appearance within 24 hours of arrest, and a handful of states, including Texas, require it within seven days. Most states have no firm deadline.

“(We have a) system in which police essentially disappear people because the court system isn’t there to perform its function in a timely manner,” says Pamela Metzger, director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center and professor of law at SMU Dedman School of Law. “And that’s not okay.”

The center advocates for prompt initial appearances to prevent secret detentions and interrogations, provide an arrested person with critical information and advice needed to argue their case, trigger the right to counsel and facilitate pretrial release.

This research is making an impact on the local justice systems in several states and in Dallas County, specifically, through a partnership with the Dallas County District Attorney’s office. More reforms are expected in state criminal justice systems around the nation based on the Deason Center’s research.

“We’re looking at potentially convening a group of experts on criminal procedure to write out what a new model rule might look like,” says Malia Brink, senior policy attorney at the Deason Center. “We don’t do research to sit on bookshelves. We do research for reform.”