Even before arriving at Duke Law School last July, L. Neil Williams, Jr. Professor Brandon Garrett reached out to a diverse range of stakeholders in North Carolina’s criminal justice system.
Using their input as a blueprint for a North Carolina Criminal Justice Research and Policy Project, he initiated an array of non-partisan, evidence-based projects and established partnerships on such matters as court debt forgiveness, driver license restoration, re-entry, recovery courts, wrongful convictions, and sentencing.
Garrett, a leading scholar of criminal justice outcomes, evidence, and constitutional rights whose research and teaching interests include forensic science, eyewitness identification, and corporate crime, forged, through his early outreach, ongoing relationships with judicial and government officials, advocates for law reform in Durham, defense attorneys, and prosecutors. These include Satana Deberry ’94, who had just been elected as Durham County district attorney and is one of a cadre of prosecutors nationally who aim to implement progressive reforms in the administration of criminal justice.
In all of these efforts Garrett has engaged his interdisciplinary Duke research team — the new JustScience Lab — that includes two postdoctoral research fellows, faculty in medicine, and undergraduate and graduate research assistants, whose work is complemented by that of students enrolled in his Criminal Justice Policy Lab. Their research, which has resulted in several published reports, is supported by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.
“He has really varied research interests and is always interested and willing to listen,” said Will Crozier, one of the team’s postdoctoral research fellows, of Garrett’s community outreach. “I think some of his best collaborations have come of it.”
Garrett’s research agenda into criminal justice policy in North Carolina reflects an expansion from his previous work in Virginia when he was on the law faculty of the University of Virginia. There he studied judges’ use of a statewide risk assessment program for nonviolent offenders, described in a forthcoming article in Judicature magazine. Another report describes the widespread adoption of modern eyewitness identification policies by police agencies as a result of sustained engagement by state-level agencies with local law enforcement. Garrett also collaborated with researchers on a series of projects related to eyewitness evidence supported by Arnold Ventures and projects related to forensic science supported by the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence (CSAFE).
With multiple projects in North Carolina currently moving forward, several of Garrett’s initiatives have already yielded impressive results.
Advocating to eliminate driver license suspensions
One of Garrett's most visible collaborations is with the North Carolina Justice Center on driver license suspensions, a problem they found now affects 1.2 million drivers in the state. These were individuals who had their licenses automatically suspended for non-driving related reasons, such as failure to pay fines and court courts or failure to appear in court.
Garrett’s team analyzed data on active suspensions supplied by the Administrative Office of the Courts. Their report, describing the demographics and geographic distribution of these drivers and examining whether race and poverty rates correlate with county license suspension rates, has implications for restoration efforts, decisions by prosecutors whether to dismiss charges in such cases, and a pending class action brought by the ACLU. In addition to receiving exposure for the report through media coverage of an event at Duke Law and an editorial calling for a statewide solution published in American Conservative, Garrett emailed it to individual state legislators along with an invitation to discuss the issue in person.
Daniel Bowes, senior attorney at the NC Justice Center, which has long advocated for legislators to remedy the problem of rampant suspensions, said Garrett has been highly effective in making the effort non-partisan. "Brandon had reached out to a lot of different entities, so all the professionals I was working with had either met with him or heard about him very early in his time down here," said Bowes, who said a bill is currently before the General Assembly. “Having him come in with his credibility was a huge benefit. We were able to get strong bipartisan sponsors for legislation, including the co-chair of the [Senate] judiciary committee, and I actually am hopeful that it will pass."
Bowes said he also appreciated Garrett's approach of partnering with the center and building on the work they had started. "He wasn't coming in and telling us what to do, but he was trying to add capacity and add his platform to the effort. He has this unique capacity and expertise and approach that really benefited our existing networks."
As a follow-up, the JustScience Lab will compare a separate dataset of individuals who paid their fines and fees to have their licenses restored to those who did not to seek insights into the populations most vulnerable to fines and fees.
Garrett’s research team has also mailed surveys to drivers with license suspensions to assess the collateral consequences on their lives: how it has affected their mobility, employment, family relationships, health, and housing. The team hopes in the future to conduct detailed follow-up interviews with respondents, partnering with Duke Law Professor Sara Sternberg Greene, a sociologist who specializes in large-scale qualitative research on poverty, to better understand the impact of fines and fees on individuals and communities.
Supporting local reform initiatives
Having reached out to Deberry about her plans for progressive criminal justice reform long before she took office as Durham County district attorney, Garrett and his team regularly meet with members of her office to discuss policies and research on such topics as police practices, jury selection and plea bargaining, and pre-trial decision-making. His engagement has brought a new emphasis on using data in Durham County, said Alyson Grine, assistant district attorney and team lead for policy and training.
"Brandon is very smart about data and the power of data," she said. "Since we are starting with a new administration it’s important to put it in place at the outset so that in a year or two we can measure the new initiatives we are putting into place and how it’s impacting the criminal justice system and the community. He’s got a skill set that is really important for us in these efforts and he's been very generous with his time."
Among other initiatives, the JustScience Lab is collecting and analyzing data from the Durham County Jail to check for disparities in how bail is ordered by different judges and identify factors that might lead to higher or lower bail, using a webscraping system set up by digital resource librarian Sean Chen. The research team also plans to analyze data on plea-bargaining outcomes.
With Catherine Grodensky, a PhD student in the Sanford School of Public Policy, the team has proposed grant-supported work in Orange County, in collaboration with pre-trial services and the court clerk, to improve attendance at court appearances.
Working with Duke School of Medicine
Drs. Marvin Swartz, Jeffrey Swanson, Michele Easter, and Allison Robertson from the Services Effectiveness Research Program in the Duke Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences have met regularly with the group at Duke Law to collaborate on a series of projects at the intersection of law and medicine, behavioral health, and criminal justice. The Psychiatry group has longstanding interest in the effects of legal policies and intervention on behavioral health services including court-mandated treatment, related types of mandates, diversion programs and treatment of behavioral health conditions in the justice system. The group recently administered a survey of recovery court professionals in North Carolina, several hundred of whom were brought together for a two-day training in October 2018 by the Administrative Office of the Courts. In North Carolina, alternative courts are called recovery courts, and they can include drug courts, mental health courts, veterans courts, and others. The team asked the professionals a series of questions regarding the effectiveness of their courts and received answers suggesting important areas for improvement. The results are included in a substantial report, titled “Better but Not Enough: Access to Treatment in Recovery Court,” shared recently with the North Carolina Judicial Branch to inform its work.
Duke Medical collaborators Dr. Swanson, Dr. Easter, and graduate student Tony Tong also are analyzing nationwide data on the creation of such alternative courts. In North Carolina, for example, when the state stopped providing state funding for these courts, they had to rely on local funding or federal grants and their numbers dropped. The team is studying the adoption of these courts during three time periods to assess whether their numbers reflect other trends in states such as incarcerated population or crime rates.
Allison Robertson from this group is also leading an evaluation of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs in North Carolina. LEAD is a pre-booking diversion pilot program developed with law enforcement and community partners to address low-level drug crimes in several counties. The program allows law enforcement officers to redirect low-level offenders engaged in drug activity to community-based services instead of jail and prosecution. Robertson and collaborators are evaluating the implementation and effectiveness of these emerging programs.
Working toward more just sentencing
Garrett's work on sentencing reform in North Carolina is currently focused on the most serious sentence short of capital punishment: life without parole (LWOP). His research in this area is novel, as there have been no prior studies of case-level data on LWOP sentencing.
Garrett's first report on the issue, co-authored with Ben Finholt, staff attorney with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, post-doctoral fellow Karima Modjadidi, and Duke political science PhD and incoming JD student Kristen Renberg, examined juvenile LWOP sentencing, which is limited to relatively few states in the U.S. — and imposed in no other country in the world. The report, “Juvenile Life Without Parole in North Carolina,” examined 94 cases and found stark geographic and racial disparities in how the sentence is applied statewide. The resulting article is forthcoming in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.
The report’s release in February at a public event at the Law School was attended by legislators and garnered extensive coverage that has already made an impact, Finholt said, noting that since its release, at least one district attorney has consented to a lesser sentence when he had the option to ask for life without parole.
"Since Brandon got involved, we have seen movement in the juvenile life without parole space that I don’t think we would have gotten otherwise," Finholt said. "Every other time they had always asked for life without parole and this was the first time they didn’t. His involvement has taken the message that we were trying to promote and gotten attention that we as litigators just didn’t have either the platform or the time to do."
Finholt credits the publicity generated by the report and event, combined with Garrett's credibility and bipartisan backing, with bringing awareness to an issue that he's long pressed legislators to consider. In April, a bill to eliminate life without parole for juveniles and replace it with parole eligibility was filed in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Three of its four primary sponsors were Republicans.
Kristin Parks, a longtime attorney for North Carolina death row inmates and one of the bill’s authors, said Garrett contributed valuable assistance not only with its language but also with its fiscal note, an important consideration for a legislature that at mid-year was struggling to pass a state budget. "It is invaluable to have someone who can crunch numbers and come up with estimates of costs savings on a bill that we think is good policy," Parks said. "The issues that we’ve been talking about for years went nowhere, and now all of a sudden people are willing to listen.
“I appreciate all he’s done because it is really important in moving our state forward and educating people who are new to these issues in different and important ways."
The JustScience Lab is currently extending the work more broadly to some 1,600 inmates serving sentences of life without parole, comparing corrections data with data concerning death-eligible cases in North Carolina. Such a detailed quantitative analysis of LWOP sentencing has not been conducted, and Garrett is in discussions with The Sentencing Project, which is focused on reducing incarceration nationally, to include data from other states.
Finholt said he is eager to explore further partnerships with Garrett and his team. "There is a really huge trove of conviction data in North Carolina that I would like to mine further," he said, noting that it all depends on funding.
"Brandon and I have already discussed our ideas about where we go forward. He has both the people and the platform to take the work that I do on a strict data-set level, and amplify it far beyond what we initially thought we were able to use it for."
Complementing other criminal justice efforts
Garrett’s work in diverse areas of criminal justice research and policy builds on longstanding efforts by Duke Law faculty and students to improve criminal justice outcomes in North Carolina. His 2011 book Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong is the principal text for the Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law James Coleman, Jr., who co-directs the clinic with Charles S. Rhyne Clinical Professor of Law Theresa Newman.
“The research that he did on the first 250 exonerations using DNA basically provides a roadmap to enable us to identify possible wrongful convictions,” Coleman said. In May the clinic won the exoneration and release, after 43 years of incarceration, of client Charles Ray Finch, who was wrongly convicted of a 1976 murder. It was the clinic’s seventh exoneration.
Coleman and others at Duke Law also got to know Garrett over the years through annual roundtables Garrett convened that brought together law professors at southeastern U.S. schools to discuss research and developments in criminal law.
“He had already included us in his collaborations even before there was any thought in his mind of him coming here,” Coleman said. “So we were all very pleased and excited about him coming here. We thought he would be a major plus for our school.”