Indiana State University Newsroom

Students develop program to aid courts in appointing public defenders

November 26, 2013

In Indiana, there is no standard system for determining whether people facing criminal charges are eligible for a public defender in the court of law.

Indiana State University students majoring in criminology and political science have spent the past several months working to help solve that problem.

With a grant from the Indiana Criminal Justice Association, the students have created a pilot screening system to help guide Vigo County judges in appointing public defenders. They began the project in May and will have all of their analysis finished by Dec. 31.

"Prior to this study, each court used a different method for evaluating a defendant for a public defender," Jordan Isaacs, a criminology graduate student from Terre Haute, said. "The system we created works to establish a uniform and efficient structure that asks the same questions for every Vigo County defendant."

Through an interview process, the students asked defendants a standardized set of questions about income, family status, employment and whether they receive public assistance. Based on that information, they made a recommendation to the judge about whether that individual should receive a public defender.

"We got it started from the bottom-up because how do you declare indigence on someone?" Isaacs said. "That's one of the first questions that I didn't know... but I've definitely learned a lot along the way."

Students modeled their screening system after one used in King County, Wash. They then tailored the system to the specific needs of Indiana and Vigo County based on statewide public assistance programs.

Graduate assistant and adjunct criminology professor Maggie Rumler of Hutsonville, Ill. began working on this project during her final semester of graduate school. She thought it would be a good way to get research experience in a field that interests her.

"It's a pilot study and I thought it would be cool to get involved in something that has not been done in Indiana before," Rumler said.

The students also sent surveys to the other 91 counties in Indiana to ask about their current methods for determining eligibility for public defenders. Combining the data from the surveys and questions that have to be legally asked, the students want to create a standardized screening instrument that can be used state-wide by all county court systems.

Gretchen Etling, chief public defender for Vigo County, initiated the grant and subcontracted the project and evaluation to Indiana State's department of criminology and criminal justice.

"This is something that Indiana Public Defenders Association wants to install in every Indiana county... [a] uniform system where they can measure indigency," Isaacs said.

Although the students made recommendations to the judge about an individual's eligibility based on their interview, it was ultimately the judge's decision whether a public defender was provided.

"You kind of feel like you have to judge people," Rumler said. "A lot of people would tell you their story and it was difficult to hear that and try to separate yourself from it... I think the defendants might have felt a little more accountable since they had to come see an ‘official person' to get recommended for a public defender."

The students have begun to phase out of the interview process and to analyze the results from the past several months of interviewing defendants. They are also asking court personnel how effective they felt the screening instrument was.

"We [are interviewing] judges, court staff, defendants to see if they actually liked this or if they hated it, to see if it was positive or negative," Isaacs said.

Isaacs said they plan to present the results of their research at either the Academy of Criminal Justice conference in February or the American Society of Criminology conference next fall. For him, presenting research at national conferences is just one of the many opportunities that he has had at Indiana State, while getting both his undergraduate and master's degrees.

"I think as students we kind of get in a student bubble and we don't see what is going to happen in the real world, we just kind of stick to the books and theory side of it," Isaacs said. "[But] it is important get in there and get the experiential learning experiences and interact with the public."

Rumler has already seen benefits of spending time in the courthouse and interacting with potential future employers whom she worked with during the research process.

"Being in the courthouse and knowing how it works and getting some of those contacts with judges really helps get my foot in the door at other places," she said.

Writer: Emily Sturgess, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3773 or