Office of Engaged Learning Office of Engaged Learning – Research

Interview with Dr. Andrew Davies (Dedman School of Law)


by Aya Bellaoui ’24

Dr. Davies is the Director of Research at the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center in the Dedman School of Law. It was ultimately the creation of this Center that drew Dr. Davies to SMU. The university does not have a criminal justice department like other universities, but a gift from the Deason Foundation helped to establish the Center in 2016 to conduct innovative research and educational programs to address need for reforms in US criminal justice system. Davies’ background is in social science, not law, but his research prior to arriving at SMU was in regard to legal representation for accused people who cannot afford a lawyer.

Prior to working in Albany, Dr. Davies was a Research Associate at the New York State Defenders Association. He has received degrees from Oxford University (BA Modern history, 2002; MSc Criminology, 2004) and the University at Albany School of Criminal Justice (MA, 2006, PhD 2012). He has also received large national grants on access to counsel and quality legal representation from the National Institute of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the National Science Foundation.

The Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center had hired its Director, Pamela R. Metzger, who then hired Dr. Davies as Director of Research at the center. Professor Metzger states that “Dr. Davies is among the nation’s top criminal justice researchers. He is a pioneer in the growing field of multi-site, data-driven, and evidence-based indigent defense research. He brings with him the substantial experience of nearly a decade of work in the field.”

What previous research have you done and what have you found?

Much of Dr. Davies’ research is centered around indigent defense service. It is mostly regarding whether people have access to defense representation, and if the quality of that service is good or bad. To initiate the process of providing representation for supposed criminals, Dr. Davies wrote the article, “Gideon in the Desert,” which examined the difficulties facing defendants in rural Texas accessing indigent defense services. Access to counsel for criminal defendants is an ongoing challenge in rural localities, notwithstanding the mandates of Sixth Amendment jurisprudence. He and his co-author analyzed Texas as a 254-county study (every county in Texas organizes its own defense). They evaluated every county and identified the patterns. One finding revealed that in rural counties, significantly fewer defendants were using indigent defense resources; about 39% of those prosecuted for a misdemeanor in Texas urban counties received these resources, but only about 25% in rural counties would.

In addition to these statistics, they obtained data from various policy documents and 46 interviews with rural county officials. The biggest finding was that indigent defense resources are delivered in two ways: The assigned counsel system (a judge meets the defendant in court and picks the lawyer for them), and the more modern version which goes through the public defender’s office where all the lawyers perform criminal defense work for the poor. The latter is more professional and formal. In rural counties, it is significantly less likely for a defendant to get representation, but if a rural county has a public defenders office, indigent defendants were significantly more likely to be represented. That closed the gap with the urban counties. Rates of representation in rural counties could match that of urban counties if they incorporate public defenders offices.

What are your goals?

Dr. Davies and his research team will be reviewing the data and analyzing it to further flesh out and test their findings. Long term, they wish to prove the value of indigent defense representation in the state of Texas. The main concern is that there are financially unstable defendants being put through the judicial system without appropriate representation and are prosecuted unfairly. This can lead to serious, but avoidable, consequences. There may be people that plead guilty even though they are innocent simply because they are not represented. When you are charged for something and don’t have anyone to help you find evidence, you may give in to the deal/charge presented to you by law enforcement personnel. The number of people who agree to these deals, just so they can return home, is shockingly high. The alternative is an undetermined period spent in jail. This results in a criminal record which prevents one from being able to work at certain places and disqualifies you from various benefits.

Dr. Davies is hoping to make clear recommendations to Texas to support the creation of indigent defense resources across the state, particularly in rural areas where people are not receiving proper representation. As a large-scale approach, his team must figure out the financial angle—because if prisons hold fewer people, they have to make budget cuts which lead to worse living conditions in the prison, and even limit the necessities. Overall, the pitch is to improve defense services and guarantee more equitable justice.

What resources have you needed to further your work? Have those resources been accessible?

The team received a grant from the Texas Bar Foundation, which lasted one year and funded the collection of the data. They have only worked to collect all the data, but they have not yet analyzed it. That is this coming year’s objective.

Have you faced any challenges? What are you doing to overcome them?

Knowing how to approach this research was a challenge at first. They found it difficult to conceptualize what they’re looking at and how they were going to do it. Developing the pieces for that was also a demanding task. For example, they needed to know who they were going to interview, and what type of questions they needed to ask. The interviews ended up being a total of 400,000 words, which is difficult to get through. They struggled to summarize everything since interviews are unstructured. To boil it down, they used a software program called NVivo, which acts as color-varied highlighters on steroids. They were able to create a list of texts to highlight, which the software would then categorize. They successfully developed one single list and had all researchers categorize the text once again. They then used statistics to compare whether each research member is categorizing the data the same way.

Having a consistent system where multiple people are working on the data can be beneficial as the entire group could better come to an agreement and be on the same page. The struggle is getting a team with a massive load of unstructured information to come to a consensus interpretation of what the information means. Fortunately, Thematic Analysis assisted the team in consolidating the information. It is easy to conduct research so long as every team member performs it the same way.

Thank you, Dr. Davies!

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