The Catholic University of America
The CUA Law Criminal Justice Reform Initiative



With more than two million adults and children behind bars, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Mass incarceration has not impacted all Americans equally – instead it has had a drastically disproportionate impact on poor, minority communities. Eighty percent of people accused of a crime are poor, and while they are entitled to a lawyer under well-established Supreme Court precedent, too often they face loss of liberty without one. Access to justice in the world’s leading democracy remains aspirational.

Through the inspiration and leadership of Professor Cara Drinan, the Law School will embark upon an access to justice pilot program designed to document the lack of effective representation for poor criminal defendants in the United States. The pilot will involve fieldwork and research regarding public defender caseloads and the related dynamic of “no counsel courts,” where individuals entitled to a lawyer nonetheless face loss of liberty without one. The Law School has received in excess of $250,000 to fully fund the pilot project and seeks philanthropic partners to further its access to justice initiative.

The Pilot Study

The nature of indigent defense services varies from state to state, but across the country the norm is substandard. The first step to remedying the persistent indigent defense crisis is data-driven education. Thus, the Pilot begins from the premise that the more policymakers know about the deficiencies of their own jurisdictions’ indigent defense delivery models, the more likely they are to remedy them. Specifically, the Pilot Study seeks to achieve two goals: 1) to generate a data-driven report on a specific jurisdiction’s provision of the right to counsel that can be the basis for legislative reform and 2) to begin the process of creating a national repository of similar reports.

In order to achieve these two goals, CUA Law will create a classroom and fieldwork component to the Pilot Study. First, the Law School will design and offer a two-credit course for law students on established standards of justice and ethics for public defenders. The course will address the basic contours of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, when it applies, and how courts assess “effective representation.” At the same time, the classroom component will introduce students to the fundamental skills of courtroom observation and data collection.

Armed with this relevant background, the Pilot will take CUA Law students, faculty, and alumni acting as pro bono attorneys into selected courtrooms in order to conduct observations. Specifically, the Pilot Study will focus on jurisdictions plagued by the “no counsel” court phenomenon. Students and faculty will then analyze the raw data collected from the courtroom observations and generate a report for mainstream publication, The hope is that the report will prompt lasting legislative reform where it is needed most, while also providing a model for documenting how counties and states are meeting their Sixth Amendment obligations. To date, there is no central repository identifying how states and counties meet the needs of poor criminal defendants. The Pilot Study can be the cornerstone of an effort to cultivate such a database, something desperately needed among academic and lawmaking communities.

In addition to relying upon its own student, faculty and alumni resources, the Law School is pleased to have the support and partnership of The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) as it embarks upon this Pilot Study. NACDL, the largest organization of defense attorneys in the country, focuses on helping its members ensure justice and due process for those accused of a crime or misconduct and is a leader in advocating for effective right to counsel for all. NACDL will advise on selecting courtroom observation sites; provide support during the fieldwork phases of research; offer editorial assistance during the report drafting stage; and play a pivotal role in developing a media strategy for promoting research findings.

Vision for the Future

Assuming, as we do, that the Pilot Project will be successful, CUA Law envisions leveraging that success to replicate the Project and to become a national resource on the right to counsel in the United States. In the long run, the Law School seeks to establish a center focused on right to counsel issues. Such a center would continue the nationwide documentation of right to counsel services and deficiencies, while also cultivating research and legislative reform in the Sixth Amendment arena. The common denominator to all criminal justice failings – whether pre-trial detention, excessive sentencing, or wrongful conviction – is a lack of effective representation. A fully operational Center focused on the right to counsel issue could be a beacon of light, transforming the American justice system by strengthening the rights of the indigent accused.


Professor Cara H. Drinan, a professor of law at The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law, leads the Access to Justice Initiative. She teaches Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, and seminars on constitutional law. Professor Drinan's scholarship focuses on criminal justice reform, with a particular emphasis on access to justice, juvenile justice and the death penalty.

Before coming to the law school, Professor Drinan was an adjunct professor at George Mason University, where she taught Constitutional Law: Criminal Process and Rights. Prior to joining the academy, as a litigator in private practice, Professor Drinan worked on a wide range of issues, including federal regulatory compliance matters, contract disputes, employment matters, civil rights issues, a patent infringement suit, and an Oklahoma death penalty appeal.

Professor Drinan holds a B.A., summa cum laude, from Bowdoin College, an M.A. from Oxford University in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, and a J.D. from Stanford Law School. She was a 1995 recipient of a Truman Scholarship and a 1997 recipient of a Marshall Scholarship.

Professor Drinan may be reached at Alumni or others interested in getting involved with this initiative should email or call 202-319-5670.



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Criminal Justice Reform Initiative Contact Information

Phone: 202-319-5508


Mailing Address:

Columbus School of Law
Criminal Justice Reform Initiative
3600 John McCormack Road, N.E.
Washington, DC 20064
Cara H. Drinan
Professor of Law