Indigent Defense, Social Workers and Suicidality in Jail: Evidence from Randomized Clinicians and Instrumental Variables

Travis county, the seat of Austin Texas, mental health courts manage the large case load of defendants with a mental illness.   For those unable to afford their own defense, defendants in this court are assigned to either a public defender or a private indigent defense attorney drawn randomly from a large pool of private indigent defense attorneys. Public defenders are assigned defendants with lower functioning, and as a result, the county allocates two social workers for every one public defender. Private indigent defense attorneys, on the other hand, are paid a nominal fixed fee of $750 which is insufficient to hire a social worker.  We estimate the causal effect of public defense on repeat offending and suicidality using a leniency design in which randomized assignment of pre-trial clinicians is an instrument for lawyer assignment.  While we find no differences in repeat offending between public and private attorneys, we do find that public defenders reduce suicide attempts by 14% conditional on returning to jail compared to that of private indigent defense attorney.  

 

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