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The field of empirical research on public defense is in an early stage of development. Yet the field is also diverse, as a growing community of researchers applies training in disciplines ranging from law and criminology to economics and social psychology. These facts invite reflection on baseline questions about the field that may inform future work. For example, what factors shape our research agendas? What data, methods, and theories are in play? Do these new research agendas align with the research priorities of public defenders and the communities they serve? Should they do so? To begin exploring such questions, this pilot study asked public defense providers for their views on the top-priority issues that empirical research should investigate in order to improve public defense. The study engaged 71 Mississippi defenders in a modified group-level assessment (GLA), which is a qualitative, participatory method of social science inquiry. Study goals included facilitating defender identification of empirical research priorities, comparing defender perspectives based on role and experience level, and assessing GLA’s utility in this new setting.

The modified GLA was productive. With little variation across provider role or experience level, defenders prioritized four main research topics: formation of positive attorney-client relationships, optimizing outcomes for clients, the prevalence and impact of resource disparities between defense and law enforcement, and systemic problems in areas that affect public defense such as policing, prosecution, the judiciary, and corrections. Project background, methodology, preliminary results, and limitations are discussed.

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Criminal Law Commons