Post by Andrew Davies, MSc Alumnu

MSc Alumnu Andrew Davies reflects on how his studies in Oxford enabled him to see the 'world' differently. Read below about his journey.

I knew nothing when I arrived in Oxford. I was fresh from the jails of the Southern end of the US state of Georgia where I had been living, eating and breathing with capital defense attorneys. We dug in to the swampland, sorting through drug deals gone bad, the command hallucinations of persons with schizophrenia and crimes of senseless malice. One man killed himself. Another was freed by DNA. We drank coffee and a lot of beer.

I had been working with what was then called the MultiCounty Public Defender Office (MPD), the only state-wide entity in Georgia dealing with public defense. MPD provided representation exclusively in capital cases, assisting local attorneys from the counties where the cases were tried. Public defense in Georgia was in a pitiful state, I was told. There were no resources, no decent attorneys, and no rules. I heard of attorneys who were overwhelmed or incompetent, and defendants who were treated unjustly. But the truth is there were also no data. What can you really conclude from attorneys that tell you they are overworked? From a defendant who sits across from you, born just a month later than I was, talking to you through bullet-proof glass? It’s hard to know what it really means. I thought I needed to get smarter, so I came to Oxford.

It wasn’t a bad decision. I enrolled in the MSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice and I still remember clearly the moment in Federico Varese’s research design class when I realized there was a remedy for all this confusion. Data trumped anecdotes. Systematically gathered observations beat gut feelings. It was a relief. In fact, it was empowering.

Thinking I should be closer to the action, I moved to Albany, New York, in 2004 – the year the state’s highest court declared the death penalty unconstitutional. I got my PhD at the State University of New York at Albany’s School of Criminal Justice and kept looking at capital punishment, publishing a chapter on the subject in 2009, and organizing a 2011 lecture by David Garland. Some colleagues and I studied the impact of homicide on the families of its victims and most recently I was funded by the Themis Fund to investigate the recent wave of repeals across the United States (New York was the first of six.) Life came full circle when I reunited with a friend from the Georgia trenches, Sarah Gerwig-Moore, now a professor at Mercer Law School, for a 2014 piece on state policies on ‘last meal’ provisions, which just came out in the British Journal of American Legal Studies.

But in the end it wasn’t so much the death penalty as it was those defense attorneys that became my focus. I took a job at the New York State Defenders Association and learned New York was (and still is) remarkably like Georgia in its patchwork of county-based defense providers, objectively underfunded and varying vastly in resources. Indigent defense policy in the USA is mostly made at the county level, unlike in the UK where it is administered, governed and funded at the national level. I started investigating the issue with colleagues and quickly realized this was a complicated picture: policy on indigent defense is much more tied to the fiscal and political realities governments face than anything approximating ‘due process values’, and the era of the 'punitive turn' has not been kind to it.

In 2010, things changed – at least for me. New York enacted legislation to create the Office of Indigent Legal Services (ILS) and hired me to be its first Director of Research. It’s remarkable how little data there really are on public defenders. In New York, 150 defender programs operate across 62 counties in almost complete isolation. Where there are data at all they are idiosyncratic, and often incomplete. And yet we had to rationalize giving state funds where they were needed most. The law said we needed systematic information and it became my job to get it. I channeled Varese.

We are making progress. Since we were formed we’ve improved data collection statewide, tackled performance measurement, been part of the national conversations on defender research capacity, and taken on special projects with the help of a series of brilliant doctoral student interns from SUNY Albany. This year the Office was selected for funding to conduct the nation’s first ever study of early intervention by counsel in non-urban jurisdictions. And we’ve organized what is probably the nation’s first special series of panels focused on indigent legal services research at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in San Francisco, the collected proceedings of which will be featured in an issue of the Albany Law Review next year.

A motto Andrew has in his office
A motto reflecting on Andrew's work

Oxford gave me an awareness of just how much information is not known about criminal justice. Policy is so often made in an informational vacuum – a point that I am reminded of every time I witness a legislative session. Criminal justice managers are often at a similar deficit. And yet the point all of us should take away from our education here, in my view, is that with sufficient time and effort, almost any kind of information is actually discoverable, and that policy made in the knowledge of good information should be better than that made without it (though of course life is more complicated than this). It was after my MSc that I committed myself to the idea that being smarter and knowing more was always better than knowing less in criminal justice. In fact, without that, we wouldn’t really need academics at all, would we?