A new public database housed at the Law School aims to help public defenders assist indigent clients by making a wide range of social-science resources readily available.
Data for Defenders collects briefs, motions, and transcripts focused on social science research and data that public defenders could find useful. It includes information on topics like the science of eyewitness memory; problems with racism and bias in the criminal legal system; and the use of unreliable, seemingly scientific evidence.
The project is sponsored by Michigan Law's MDefenders program along with a number of partners, including defender offices and organizations around the country, to ensure that the database remains relevant and up to date. In addition to including completed briefs and motions submitted by defenders, aspiring public defenders at Michigan Law will draft arguments incorporating cutting-edge research and upload that to the database as well.
“Data for Defenders promotes creative evidence-based advocacy,” said Professor Eve Brensike Primus, ’01, who leads the project. “Instead of having defenders around the country waste precious time reinventing the wheel each time these issues come up, this database will collect and share sample motions and briefs to help public defenders bring data, research, and statistics into the courtroom.”
I think this database can elevate the level of defense practice. In the end, it should make the system more fair and more just.
Primus—who is the Yale Kamisar Collegiate Professor of Law as well as director of MDefenders and Michigan Law’s Public Defender Training Institute—said the database meets a real need.
“There are a lot of lawyers who go into public defense because they believe in social justice and want to help people. They're trained as lawyers to read cases and statutes, but a lot of law schools don't offer training on how to conduct social science research,” Primus said.
“In the last 20 to 30 years, there has been an explosion in statistical, empirical, and social science literature about the criminal legal system. A lot of people have focused on issues of race in the system, issues of junk science in the system, issues of how jurors understand information, and how judges understand information. That kind of research is incredibly important and valuable, and here at Michigan Law we teach our students how to find and use social science research.
The database, she noted, will make that research more readily available to all.
“When these studies come out, they're not applicable only in one courtroom. When there is research demonstrating that a police investigative tool is predicated on junk science, it's predicated on junk science everywhere. So the idea was to collect and disseminate information for defenders around the country about ways in which this kind of research can and should be incorporated into defense advocacy.”
Primus said the database is designed to be as helpful as possible: “We tried to organize it in an incredibly user-friendly way. For every document in the database, there is a description that will pinpoint exactly which pages have the relevant information. It’s also searchable by a number of different categories—date, jurisdiction, topic, key terms. And because it has succinct summaries, perusing the database by category can also generate ideas for defenders about different kinds of issues they can raise that they might not have otherwise thought of.”
Primus believes the project can have a big impact on fairness in the justice system.
“I think this database can elevate the level of defense practice. In the end, it should make the system more fair and more just. The adversarial criminal legal system is supposed to involve a prosecutor presenting evidence against a robust defense. Unfortunately our system is very slanted, and prosecutors often have a lot more resources than the defense. It compromises not just the legitimacy of the system, but the accuracy of the system too.
“So, to the extent that we as a public law school with a public-facing mission can encourage and promote the dissemination of ideas and research that actually injects more accuracy and legitimacy into that process, I think it's incumbent on us to do it.”