a bird and a bottle

How Effective Are Public Defenders? And Why?
January 8, 2007, 4:52 pm
Filed under: criminal justice, law, news

According to an Op-Ed in today’s New York Times, they are only as effective as the market forces are strong.

The Opinion column today reports on a new study about the efficacy of public defenders. The study supposedly proves that public defenders are less successful than private defense attorneys because they more often than not defend guilty people who have chosen not to break the family bank on an expensive private attorney since they know they are likely to be convicted. The thinking (and supposedly the statistical analysis) goes like this: when people are innocent, they are more willing to shell out tons of money to hire a private defense attorney than they are if they are guilty and know the chances of conviction are relatively high. This is possible because the way we define indigency leaves room for people who are not destitute to qualify for a public defender if they cannot make bail. So basically – according to the study – public defenders have lower acquittal rates and longer average sentences than prive defense attorneys because they are more likely to defend guilty people who have weak cases.

OK. I admittedly am no statistician, but there are a few things about this study that immediately jumped out at me as questionable:

1) The study arbitrarily makes a life sentence equivalent to 110 years. The authors admit it’s arbitrary. If the study is right about people’s motivations in choosing public defenders when they could hire private ones, using such a large number to represent life sentences runs the risk of skewing the study against public defenders. Since public defenders are more likely to represent people who are guilty – and often guilty of heinous crimes – then they are more likely to represent people who will be sentenced to life in prison.

2) The Op-Ed suggests that a solution for the discrepancy found by this study could be to tighten the definition of indigency. That’s fine, I suppose (though it may mean that people who cannot make bail are without an attorney at critical early points in the adversary process), but it deflects attention from other important deficiencies in the public defender system. Public defenders are poorly paid on overworked. Their caseloads verge on the ridiculous. Yet the Op-Ed glosses over this by calling increasing public defender pay a “drastic” solution akin to privatization.

I could go on. Jeralyn at TalkLeft has several more complaints about the study. It’s dangerous to overlook the deficiencies of the country’s public defender offices, or to pin them solely on the defenders themselves. And I think it’s farcical to think that free market forces will do anything to protect the rights of those who are truly indigent and in need of a competent defense.

(image source)


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