For my first blog post I wanted to respond to an idea that floats around our culture: that public defenders are somehow not as good as private criminal defense attorneys. When I was a public defender, this was most memorably expressed to me by a client asking if they needed to get a “real lawyer.” Well, like I told that client, public defenders are real lawyers. And the idea that they aren’t as good as their private counterparts is just malarkey, as Joe Biden would say in polite company. In impolite company, he might call it something else.
First, public defenders have to meet the same qualifications as any other lawyer. They have to graduate law school and they have to pass the bar; neither is an easy feat. Just like other lawyers, they spent their summers during law school participating in internships to hone their skills. And like any other committed professional, they are constantly striving to improve. In these ways public defenders are no different than private criminal defense attorneys.
Second, many of the criticisms leveled at public defenders can be equally true of private criminal defense attorneys. Some clients complain that their lawyer is slow to return their calls but unfortunately this can be true whether you are paying your lawyer or not. Other clients sometimes feel pressured by their attorney to accept a plea agreement that the client feels is not fair or in their best interest. These clients fear that the attorney is recommending the plea because that’s what’s best for the attorney, not because its best for the client. But private attorneys can fall prey to the same incentives to process case as quickly as possible. This brings us to one difference between public defenders and private criminal defense attorneys: level of caseload.
Generally, public defenders carry a higher caseload than their private counterparts. This is an unavoidable result of the politicians under-funding public defense. Because of this, some public defenders might handle as many as 300+ misdemeanors in any given year. In my humble opinion, that’s A LOT of cases. This doesn’t mean that public defenders substantively handle cases any differently than if they had half their current caseload. But it does mean they have less time to meet with clients and walk them through all the various choices and permutations their path through the criminal justice system might present. This can leave clients feeling confused and like their case isn’t getting the attention it deserves. And that’s not right. But again, the problem rests with our political leaders who devote insufficient resources to public defense, not with the public defenders who work day in and day out protecting the rights of the indigent accused.
If you’re on this website, and particularly this webpage, you may be considering whether to go with the public defender or hire a private attorney. I can’t answer that question, because there is no right answer. Your public defender will do everything they can to zealously defend your case; so will the attorneys at Baldauf Masser LLP or any other firm in town. So if you qualify for the public defender, go meet with them. If you have a good connection, let them represent you. If you’d like to explore other options many firms in town, including ours, offer free consultations for criminal cases. Find the lawyer that fits best with you and together fight tooth and nail!
Until next time.
PS: For a great tragic-comic take on public defense in the United States, see this clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.