Method: To address these questions, I link county level data on public defender and support staff caseloads from the 2007 Census of Public Defender Offices to individual level data on felony defendant sentencing outcomes in large urban counties from the 2006 and 2009 State Court Processing Statistics. The sample consists of nearly 2,200 Black felony defendants, 2,000 Latinx felony defendants, and 1,300 White defendants in 11 large urban counties located in four states. To explore associations, I use multivariate statistical models and include state-year fixed effects to statistically control for all state level policies in a given time period that may have impacted incarceration outcomes. An equality of coefficients test is used to determine whether effects are statistically different across racial groups.
Results: The results suggest that high public defender and support staff caseloads are particularly detrimental to Black defendants. For Black defendants, an increase in attorney caseloads is associated with a statistically significant increase in pretrial detention, the likelihood of incarceration, and sentence length, while an increase in support staff caseloads is associated with a significant increase in pretrial detention and incarceration sentence length. The effects of public defender and support staff caseloads on pretrial detention are significantly greater for Black than White defendants, as are the effects of support staff caseloads on incarceration sentence length. The effects of attorney caseloads on pretrial detention are also significantly greater for Black than Latinx defendants.
Conclusions and Implications: Criminal justice reform efforts that aim to reduce public defender caseloads are a potentially important way to help reduce the substantial disparities that exist between Black and White Americans in the criminal justice system. The results also suggest that these efforts should not focus exclusively on attorney caseloads: reducing support staff caseloads should also be prioritized. Although increasing resources available to public defenders is critical, this approach must be complemented by other Smart Decarceration reform efforts targeting policing, prosecution, and sentencing if we are to eliminate racial disparities in incarceration.