Each year in the United States, nearly 200 wrongly convicted people are exonerated. Many of these individuals will have spent years or even decades of their lives wrongfully imprisoned in America’s brutal penal system. While there are many reasons why these innocent victims’ cases were so badly mishandled, a large number of wrongfully imprisoned people’s harrowing journey started with one grave mistake: hiring a public defender.
Good people, bad system
Although the vast majority of public defenders start out genuinely wanting to help poor defendants, the grueling realities of a strained and amoral system quickly exert themselves. In America’s largest cities, public defenders are often assigned over 1,000 cases each year, nearly eight times what is considered the maximum reasonable caseload. In many jurisdictions, public defenders are assigned as many as three capital cases per week. This frequently leads to situations like that described in a recent article where a public defender wasn’t able to interview a single witness in a potential death-penalty case.
Public defenders are also usually paid a flat per-case fee. According to the ACLU and other prisoner rights groups, this money is nearly always inadequate for mounting even a minimal defense. This means that those who hire public defenders are often completely deprived of expert witnesses, deep research, forensic simulations or reconstructions and other common techniques that can make the difference between freedom and prison.
Private defense lawyers put in the time so you don’t have to
One of the most immediate benefits of hiring a private defense attorney is that they can get a defendant out of jail quickly. With shocking regularity, public defenders simply fail to show up at preliminary examinations, pretrial conferences, bail hearings and other critical early stages of the court process. This means that defendants who have been assigned a public defender often languish in jail when they could be walking free and dedicating time to beating their case.
Private defense attorneys, on the other hand, will spring into action the moment they are hired. A private defense attorney can get results on everything from arguing for much-reduced bail to filing motions for outright dismissal based on procedural errors. Serious procedural errors are common enough that tens of thousands of cases in the U.S. each year are dismissed because of them. Private defense attorneys will spot these holes in the state’s case and get their clients released.
Private defense attorneys suffer from virtually none of the horrifying limitations of public defenders. The only downside to hiring a private defense attorney is cost. But this is almost always an investment, no matter how painful it may seem in the short run, that anyone facing potential jail, prison, probation or community service should make.
Because of their low pay, overburdened caseloads and total lack of resources to invest in cases, public defenders settle the vast majority of their cases through plea bargaining. This means that even those who are not guilty of the crimes with which they are charged will often plead guilty in order to avoid potentially devastating prison sentences should they lose.
Private criminal defense lawyers, on the other hand, turn the tables. Prosecuting attorneys know that skilled defense lawyers are able to put dozens or hundreds of hours into a case, researching every angle, hiring expert witnesses and carefully selecting jurors. This can pose a serious threat to even the government’s best cases. Frequently, skilled defense attorneys can win at trial. And because prosecutors are working with limited resources, the fact that a defendant has merely retained a well-known defense attorney can often be enough to produce an offer of sharply reduced charges and consequent penalties.
Hiring a skilled private defense attorney will often make the difference between doing hard time and walking free. Hiring a private attorney is a clear-cut case of the rewards far outweighing the costs.