As I sit here in the dark, lamenting the death (and dearth) of blogging public defenders, I’ll leave you to read this latest study that seeks to compare the effectiveness of public defenders, assigned counsel and private attorneys. This isn’t the first study that’s been done, nor should it be the last, but the results aren’t Earth-shattering by any means.
The study, published by a statistician at the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, focuses on:
What types of defense counsel (e.g., public defenders, privately retained attorneys, or assigned counsel) represent defendants in criminal cases and how do these defense counsel types perform in terms of securing favorable outcomes for their clients? These and other issues are addressed in this article analyzing felony case processing data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Specifically, this paper examines whether there are differences between defense counsel type and the adjudication and sentencing phases of criminal case processing.
By way of preliminary information, the public defenders are full-time attorneys employed by a governmental organization who exclusively represented indigent defendants, while assigned counsel are private attorneys appointed on an as-needed basis by the courts. You know who private attorneys are.
The findings of the study really aren’t surprising at all. There’s almost no difference to speak of between the three, except that private attorneys’ clients are more likely to get some form of probation and assigned counsel clients are more likely to end up incarcerated.
The similarities between assigned counsel and public defenders, however, do not carry over when examining case outcomes. Here, the descriptive analysis shows defendants with assigned counsel receiving outcomes that, on the whole, are less favorable compared to defendants with public defenders or private attorneys. In general, defendants with assigned counsel are more likely to get convicted and sentenced to prison than their equivalents who are represented by public defenders or who have the means to hire their own attorneys.
Moreover, defendants with assigned counsel were sentenced to longer periods of confinement than those with public defenders. Another finding concerned the underwhelming evidence in support of the proposition that private attorneys secure better outcomes for their clients. Overall, the descriptive section showed that defendants who hired their own attorneys were just as likely to get convicted and actually received longer sentences compared to defendants represented by public defenders. The one area in which private attorneys seemed to be doing better involved the decision by courts to incarcerate defendants. The descriptive analysis found defendants with private attorneys being incarcerated less frequently compared to their counterparts with indigent counsel.
In conclusion, these findings suggest that indigent defendants who are represented by assigned counsel are receiving less favorable outcomes compared those with public defenders or private attorneys. They also imply that hiring an attorney does not automatically guarantee superior results; although, there is some evidence that private attorneys are keeping their clients out of prison or jail to a greater extent than indigent counsel.
It’s also interesting to note, although not surprising, that private attorneys’ clients are less likely to have a criminal record and are more likely to be white.
In terms of defendant characteristics, these findings show that defendants represented by assigned counsel and public defenders have remarkably similar characteristics. In general, defendants receiving legal representation through these two forms of indigent counsel are charged with relatively comparable crimes and have similar criminal histories and demographic characteristics. In comparison, defendants with the means to hire their own attorneys are exemplified by different attributes compared to their indigent counterparts. These defendants tend to have less serious criminal backgrounds and are charged with an array of offenses both more and less serious compared to their contemporaries with indigent counsel.
However, these attorneys also provided legal advocacy to more defendants charged with less serious public-order offenses compared to defendants who could not afford to hire their own attorneys. Lastly, private attorneys represented minorities less frequently than public defenders or assigned counsel.
The one takeaway from this study is that there is some noticeable disparity in the outcomes obtained by public defenders/private attorneys and assigned counsel. The study notes that further research is necessary to determine if assigned counsel systems are truly disadvantageous to those defendants who are subjected to it:
A more interesting, and in some ways troubling, finding concerns the role of assigned counsel in felony case processing. In general, defendants represented by assigned counsel received the least favorable outcomes in that they were convicted and sentenced to state prison at higher rates compared to defendants with public defenders. These defendants also received longer sentences than those who had public defender representation.
Although the offense specific analyzes did not always find significant associations between assigned counsel and the case processing outcomes being modeled, for several of these models the likelihood of conviction and state imprisonment, as well as the length of sentence, were found to be significantly higher for defendants with assigned counsel representation.