By Jennifer Kamorowski
February 25, 2018
In May of 2016, I started my business, Strategic Sentencing Solutions, LLC. The idea behind this company is that attorneys, their clients, and the courts can benefit from scientific research. Attorneys are experts at making persuasive legal arguments to help their clients; they do the legal research and know the most recent and relevant case law to argue their client’s case. However, because attorneys are frequently overworked and pulled in many different directions, they probably don’t have time to stay knowledgeable and informed about social science research. In addition, the courts and judges rely on attorneys and experts to present the best evidence available to inform judges’ decisions. Many cases might not rise to the level of requiring an expert witness, or the funding simply may not be there to cover that expense. That’s where my business can help – because I help situate the unique circumstances and characteristics of the individual client in the context of the scientific research in psychology and other social science fields.
So how does this help? Here are the three primary ways: 1) assists attorneys with research they are often too busy to do themselves; 2) particularly targeted to clients charged with a crime who must defend themselves with limited public or personal funds; and 3) provides empirical research upon which decision-makers can make more informed choices regarding case dispositions. I addressed the first issue in the opening to this post, so I will say a bit more about the other two factors.
It is estimated that 80% of people charged with a felony are indigent (Mosteller, 2011, p. 326). That means the accused cannot afford to hire his or her own attorney and must rely on a public defender to argue his or her case. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that 73% of county public defenders carried caseloads that exceeded the maximum recommended by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (1973). Some would even argue those recommendations are set too high and are unrealistic given the realities of today’s criminal justice system (Texas A&M University Public Policy Research Institute, 2015). These numbers set out the huge proportion of criminal defendants who are unable to afford private representation and the tremendous burden on the public defenders who are assigned to represent them. Funding is usually very limited, and not every case reaches the level of requiring an expert witness to testify. My goal is to address both of these issues by providing the most current scientific research to support defense legal arguments at a substantial cost savings, while also seeking to achieve better-informed justice outcomes. This leads me to my final point about the use of empirical scientific research informing case dispositions.
In about 95% of criminal cases, the case ends in a plea deal (Perez, 2011). However, leading up to that point, there are negotiations with the prosecuting attorney about sentencing options. Whether a client pleads guilty or is convicted at trial, there is the issue of convincing the government and the judge and/or jury about the viability and wisdom of proposed recommendations. Within these negotiations and decision-making, there exists an opportunity to leverage existing social science research to improve the recommendations and outcomes for defendants. This type of research can help situate the individual, based on his or her unique circumstances and characteristics, within the broader context of what is known about similarly-situated groups of people. The same can be said in the case of resentencing. For example, it may be important to identify what existing scientific research says about adjustment in prison to successfully argue for a reduction of a death sentence to life in prison without parole. In cases of lesser sentences, it’s important to identify what existing research says about the success of particular rehabilitation programs and their impact on recidivism. These are but two examples of ways in which the research happening in fields of social science can ultimately improve outcomes for individual clients while also advancing goals of public safety and reduction of recidivism.
In my past experience working with exceptional defense attorneys, mitigation specialists, social workers, and sentencing advocates, I have seen the tremendous empathy and dedication they bring to client advocacy. I have listened to stories about clients that are filled with heartbreak, but also with hope and change. I ultimately wanted to find a way I could support these advocates, their clients, and the community. The answer I came up with is to help bridge the gap between the law and science in a way that can advance the humanity in justice. Utilizing empirical research to improve individual outcomes and increase public safety? I think that is a win-win strategy.
Farole, Jr., D. J., Langton, L. (2010). County-based and Local Public Defender Offices, 2007 (NCJ 231175). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.
Mosteller, R. P. (2011). Failures of the American adversarial system to protect the innocent and conceptual advantages in the inquisitorial design for investigative fairness. North Carolina Journal of International Law & Commercial Regulation, XXXVI, 319-363.
Perez, D. A. (2011). Deal or no deal? Remedying ineffective assistance of counsel during plea bargaining. The Yale Law Journal, 120, 1532-1577.
Texas A&M University Public Policy Research Institute. (2015). Guidelines for Indigent Defense Caseloads: A Report to the Texas Indigent Defense Commission. College Station, TX: Public Policy Research Institute.