At one time the Public Defender provided legal defense for indigent people accused of capital crimes. Over time the role of the public defender evolved into providing legal defense for people charged with any type of felony.
That trend spawned a television show called The Public Defender. The show presented the roll of the public defender in the most unrealistic and loftiest of terms. It starred the ubiquitous Reed Hadley playing the part of the sharply tailored and relentless public defender. At the start of every week’s episode Reed informed viewers the office of public defender was charged with the responsibility of providing legal defense to anyone who cannot afford it but, who seeks it. Well the world has changed quite a bit since 1955 and that utopian concept no longer applies to today’s big city public defenders. Today’s public defenders are anything but relentless. They are usually bottom feeding lawyers in private practice contracted by the state to provide dubiously competent legal services to anyone accused of a crime who cannot afford an attorney.
Even though you may be under the impression that you are not paying your public defender because he is appointed by the court, don’t let that appearance of benevolence fool you. You will likely be ordered to provide financial information to the court and you will then be charged an attorney fee tailored to your income and budget.
The vast majority of chargeable offenses do not rise to the level of capital crimes. But first time offenders charged with crimes of assault or DUI and many other crimes can find themselves facing many years in jail without competent representation to either mitigate their circumstances through either plea bargaining with the prosecutor, or waging an aggressive defense at trial. There are many examples of peoples’ right being trampled on at the point of arrest because they were not properly informed of their rights by arresting officers. Many times even doing what one thinks is the right thing to do by telling a police officer everything he wants to know, can serve only to expose one to even stiffer penalties than he may have suffered had he kept his mouth shut until he could obtain competent legal counsel.
But don’t confuse competent legal counsel with the counsel you will receive from the public defender. You will likely not even meet your public defender until your first appearance in court, and she will likely not even recognize you, in addition to being burdened down with numerous other cases that day. What a comforting feeling, right. And then she will likely read you a litany of possible penalties and encourage you to plead guilty in hopes of negotiating a minimal sentence. In some cases even a minimal sentence can still mean years of prison time. There will be little talk of innocence. The public defender is not your friend. The old adage you get what you pay for definitely will apply when you place your faith in the public defender. And it doesn’t end after your first appearance in court.
Besides having limited or no contact with your public defender prior to your arraignment hearing, you will most likely have no contact in the months intervening months prior to trial. If you are the kind of person who likes to know the score it is unlikely you will get it from anyone other than a disinterested receptionist sitting behind bullet proof glass in a seedy low rent law office furnished by pieces from the Goodwill.
Anyone who has ever been represented by a public defender may tell you they were left with the impression that their lawyer seemed to be working for the prosecution. And that is not too far from the truth, at least indirectly. Public defenders are great at working out plea agreements that work to the prosecution’s advantage, and which also work to the public defender’s advantage by quickly disposing of cases without the time expended for trial preparation . . . next case, as they say. Plea agreements are not unique and are almost standard operating procedure. Put another way, the public defender in most cases whether they are defensible or not already knows what he can get the prosecution to agree to under state law, and pretty much already knows what he can get the prosecution to agree to under the circumstances of the individual case.
If this article sounds way too cynical than it has achieved its purpose. When you hire a public defender you are not hiring a Reed Hadley public defender. You are hiring an overworked, under paid and under qualified lawyer who does not even care to know you.
Before you place your freedom in the hands of a public defender, schedule a free consultation with a lawyer knowledgeable in the crime you are charged, and who can demonstrate track record of success. Know your rights and your options and how each will impact your life down the road.
Even if you still decide to go with the public defender at least you will have made an informed decision.