Indigent Defense:

DOJ Could Increase Awareness of Eligible Funding and Better Determine the Extent to Which Funds Help Support This Purpose

GAO-12-569: Published: May 9, 2012. Publicly Released: May 9, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Justice (DOJ) administered 13 grant programs from fiscal years 2005 through 2010 that recipients could use to support indigent defense, 4 of which required recipients to use all or part of the funding for this purpose. DOJ also provides training to indigent defense providers, among other things.

From fiscal years 2005 through 2010, recipients of the 4 grants that required spending for indigent defense allocated or planned to use $13.3 million out of $21.2 million in current dollars for indigent defense. However, among the 9 grants that did not require allocations or awards for indigent defense, two-thirds or more of state, local, and tribal respondents to GAO’s surveys reported that they did not use funds for this purpose, partly due to competing priorities. DOJ has listed the grants on its website. However, no more than 54 percent of grantees or public defender offices responding to GAO’s surveys were aware that such funding could be used to support indigent defense. Taking steps to increase awareness would better position DOJ to help ensure that eligible grantees are aware that they can access federal funding to help address their needs. DOJ officials acknowledged that opportunities exist to enhance grantees’ awareness.

When recipients allocated funding for indigent defense, the amount was generally small relative to the total award and most commonly used for personnel and training. For instance, among grant recipients who reported in GAO’s surveys that they had allocated funding for indigent defense, allocations as a percentage of total awards ranged from 2 percent to 14 percent.

DOJ generally collects data on funding allocated for indigent defense when the grant program requires such funding or identifies it as a grant priority, but does not do so in two juvenile-focused grants. According to DOJ, it does not collect such data in these two programs because indigent defense is 1 of 17 purposes for which grant funds can be used. GAO has previously reported that agencies should collect data to support decision making, and the Attorney General has committed to focusing on indigent defense issues. Collecting data on the amount of funding from these two grants that is used to support indigent defense would position DOJ to better assess if it is meeting the Attorney General’s commitment.

DOJ assesses the impact of indigent defense grant funding and has mechanisms to help indigent defense providers evaluate services. All 9 of the DOJ grant programs that required or prioritized funding to be used for indigent defense included output measures that described the level of grant activity, such as the number of defenders hired, and 7 of the 9 included outcome measures that described the intended results of the funds, such as the percent increase in defendants served. Nine of the 118 public defender offices or agencies that responded to GAO’s survey provided GAO with a copy of an evaluation that had been conducted of their office; those that did not most frequently cited lack of personnel (28 of 62) and lack of expertise or the need for technical assistance (26 of 62) as the reasons. DOJ has mechanisms that could address these challenges. For instance, DOJ provides technical assistance through a website.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every person accused of a crime the right to counsel. States and localities generally fund indigent defense services, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) also provides funding that can be used for these services. GAO was asked to review federal support for indigent defendants. This report addresses, for fiscal years 2005 through 2010, the (1) types of support DOJ provided for indigent defense; (2) extent to which eligible DOJ funding was allocated or awarded for indigent defense, the factors affecting these decisions, and DOJ’s actions to address them; (3) percentage of DOJ funding allocated for indigent defense and how it was used; (4) extent to which DOJ collects data on indigent defense funding; and (5) extent to which DOJ assesses the impacts of indigent defense grants, indigent defense programs have been evaluated, and DOJ has supported evaluation efforts. GAO surveyed (1) all 4,229 grant recipients about funding allocations and (2) a sample of 253 public defender offices about factors influencing their decisions to apply for funding. Though not all survey results are generalizable, they provide insights. GAO also analyzed grant related documents and interviewed relevant officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DOJ increase grantees’ awareness that funding can be allocated for indigent defense and collect data on such funding.

DOJ concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Eileen R. Larence at (202) 512-8777 or larencee@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: On July 10, 2012, DOJ stated that it will create a purpose area under the JABG and TJADG programs that will be specific to indigent defense, which will assist the department in collecting data on allocations of funds and spending for indigent defense. UPDATE: On July 12, 2013, OJP stated and provided documentation showing that OJJDP added a purpose area specific to indigent defense to the FY 2013 JABG Program solicitation. OJP also stated that OJJDP plans to add the indigent defense purpose area to the JADG section of the Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation (CTAS) beginning in fiscal year 2014, and that OJJDP is currently working to update its performance measurement database with the necessary data fields to track allocations in the indigent defense purpose areas. OJJDP anticipates releasing the new data fields in March 2014, with grantees expected to first report the data in 2015. According to OJP, OJJDP plans to make a cooperative agreement award by September 30, 2013 to one awardee to operate a national clearinghouse on juvenile indigent defense and this awardee will use this performance measurement data to shape training and technical assistance for the indigent defense community. We will assess the status of the recommendation after receiving documentation to verify whether these actions have been taken, with our next follow-up actions to be taken in Spring 2014.

    Recommendation: To ensure that OJP is best positioned to identify and address critical needs in the indigent defense community, determine whether it has met its commitment to indigent defense, and improve accountability in grants administration, the Assistant Attorney General of OJP should take steps to collect data on allocations and spending for indigent defense in the JABG and Tribal Juvenile Accountability Discretionary Grants Program (TJADG) programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2013, OJP stated and provided documentation showing that, from January to May 2013, its Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and DOJ's Access to Justice Initiative worked together to inform indigent defense providers of their eligibility for grant opportunities via speeches delivered to an estimated 420 total attendees; multiple internet blog posts publicizing OJP grant opportunities; a resource guide targeted to defenders and courts to better facilitate defenders' access to OJP grant opportunities; regular email alerts to a list of nearly 600 defenders notifying them of grant opportunities and other items of interest; conferences attracting more than 350 total attendees; a website aggregating DOJ's indigent defense related grants, training and technical assistance resources, speeches, blogs, and other information of interest to the defender community; webinars; the announcement of four grant solicitations for which indigent defense providers are eligible; and an estimated average of three to four weekly phone and/or email contacts from a BJA Senior Policy Advisor to members of national organizations that engage in indigent defense. These outreach efforts are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that OJP is best positioned to identify and address critical needs in the indigent defense community, determine whether it has met its commitment to indigent defense, and improve accountability in grants administration, the Assistant Attorney General of OJP should inform indigent defense providers about grants for which they are eligible to apply.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2012 and July 2013, OJP stated and provided documentation of actions to address our recommendation, including updating its Frequently Asked Questions document on the JAG Program to include indigent defense as an allowable use of JAG funds; adding a new purpose area for indigent defense to its fiscal year 2013 JABG and JJDP Title II Formula Grants Program solicitations; holding a webinar for JAG grantees to highlight state and federal resources available to the public defense community, discuss DOJ's efforts to encourage jurisdictions to bring all criminal justice system stakeholders together in planning for the use of JAG funds, and review strategies for integrating the indigent defense function into criminal justice resource planning; and reminding staff, including those in the field, of the new indigent defense purpose areas via monthly meetings and bi-monthly conference calls. These actions are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that OJP is best positioned to identify and address critical needs in the indigent defense community, determine whether it has met its commitment to indigent defense, and improve accountability in grants administration, the Assistant Attorney General of Office of Justice Programs (OJP) should take steps to increase Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG), Juvenile Accountability Block Grant (JABG), and Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Grant Title II (JJDP) grantees' awareness that funding can be allocated for indigent defense.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On July 9, 2012, BIA stated that by September 20, 2012, they it will send a letter to all tribal leaders stating that the Tribal Courts TPA funding can be used to support indigent defense positions, and that they will include this letter in Tribal Court Advocacy training packets. On September 7, 2012, we received a copy of this letter. As a result, tribal leaders' awareness that the Tribal Courts TPA may be used for indigent defense has increased and BIA is better positioned to support the development, enhancement, and continuing operation of tribal justice systems.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Office of Justice Services is best positioned to support the development, enhancement, and continuing operation of tribal justice systems, the Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs should take actions to increase awareness among recipients of Tribal Court Tribal Priority Allocations (TPA) distributions that funding can be allocated for indigent defense.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior: Bureau of Indian Affairs

 

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