It’s wonderful that our government guarantees fair representation for all who are accused of a crime, but this often makes the whole legal process that much more confusing to navigate. If you happen to qualify for the services of a public defender, can you really trust the public defender to do a good job of representing you, versus hiring a private criminal defense attorney? And what exactly qualifies someone to be a public defender anyway?
In short, a public defender has more in common with a private defense attorney than differences. A public defender is a full-fledged attorney and like any other lawyer, a public defender must have earned a J.D. (the degree earned after graduating from an American law school) and/or passed the state bar, depending on what the jurisdiction he or she is practicing in requires.
In terms of experience, a public defender’s experience will vary by the individual, just like it would among any private criminal defense attorney. As a side note, most public defenders will start out working in misdemeanors before working their way up to cases with more serious repercussions, such as sexual assault or homicide.
What are some of the differences between public and private defenders? A major one, as you may have guessed, can be the difference in the resources available to them. This difference can manifest itself in public defenders having larger caseloads, and thus, having less time to spend on any individual client. This difference can also manifest itself in public defenders having less access to important tools, such as private investigators. Of course, the amount of resources available to a public defender depends, in large part, on how well-funded a public defender’s office is. On the other hand, private defenders will usually have an unlimited time and amount of resources to spend on any client, because as long as the client is willing to pay, the private defender will put in the time and utilize more resources.
Additionally, the amount of pay a public defender receives in comparison to private defenders may be significantly less. Again, this difference will vary among each jurisdiction. For example, in Santa Clara County, California, public defenders typically make more than six figures annually, but in the county of Hinds, Mississippi, public defenders make a salary more in the range of $32,000-$53,000.
However, even if the pay difference between a public and private defender is large, this difference does not necessarily reflect on the quality of service a public defender provides. In fact, it is usually highly competitive to obtain a public defender position out of law school. Public defenders are likely to be very committed to their jobs, and many are willingly to take a pay cut out of a true desire to serve those who are less able to afford legal representation.
Finally, one more difference between public and private defenders is that public defenders typically can’t refuse cases. This means that as long as the case qualifies for the public defender program, the public defender assigned to the case cannot refuse it unless he has a good legal reason to, such as having a conflict of interest with another client. On the other hand, private attorneys can refuse to take on cases for any reason at all, including whether the attorney feels like the case has a strong chance of winning or not.
The short answer to this question is, not really. There are a few reasons why surveys have not been helpful in answering the question of how effective private versus public defenders are. For one thing, public defenders’ offices just vary too much by jurisdiction in order to conduct meaningful surveys on public defenders’ general effectiveness. Another difficulty is that there are too many factors at play to be able to come to any meaningful, general conclusions. For example, by the nature of public defenders’ having to defend lower-income clients, the seriousness of the cases that public defenders take on may be different from the seriousness of the cases that private defenders work on. Thus, it is no surprise that surveys reach different conclusions (see contrasting results here and here). If you really want to know more on this topic before making a decision though, then it would be best to look at local surveys or statistics in the area that the case will be tried in.
Practical tips for choosing the right criminal defense attorney for you
With all that said, if you are needing a criminal defense attorney, the following is a list of some suggestions to help you choose the right defense attorney for you, and to help you get the most out your attorney’s services:
1. Many of the persons who qualify for the public defender program are “marginally indigent”. That is, their income is low enough to qualify for a public defender, yet they can also afford a private attorney if necessary. If you are one of these few and need to make a choice between going with a public or private defender, then you will want to consider the seriousness of the crime and the difficulty of proof. For example, if you are being prosecuted for a relatively simple misdemeanor, but you know you are absolutely innocent, then you may want to hire a private defender to make sure your name is absolutely cleared. On the other hand, if you are being prosecuted for a serious crime, but know that the evidence is pretty much stacked against you, then it may be the better choice to go with a public defender.
2. If you end up going with a public defender, then you want to make sure you get your attorney’s attention. Inspire your attorney and convince him or her that your case deserves the extra time. There are simple and easy ways to do this. Your attorney will likely be sizing you up during your first meeting, so make a good first impression by acting politely and dressing conservatively. This will also help later on if your case ever goes to trial because your attorney will be more confident in putting you on the stand. Also, help your attorney out with any of the work when possible. You’ll be a great help to your attorney if you can provide timelines, phone logs, diagrams of the scene of the incident, lists of potential witnesses with their address, and so forth. Of course, any of these tips would be helpful when working with a private defense attorney as well.
3. Finally, you may also want to consider looking to a non-profit legal organization for help. Most geographic areas will have public interest organizations, usually funded by some combination of government aid, grants, and individual donations, that provide legal aid to those who may have more difficulty affording it. A simple google search, or phone call to even one of these organizations, can provide you with leads to more legal aid societies in your area that can offer assistance.