Public Defenders Versus Appointed Attorneys: Who Comes Out on Top?
Date:  02-25-2013

The answer may prove to be surprising to some
There is much concern that indigent defendants do not get the best defense when assigned to a public defender. After all, public defenders are thought of as being over-burdened with cases, and having limited available resources. On September 9, 2010 Reentry Central posted a report on an American Bar Association (ABA) study, published by the Miller-McClune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, which found that such assumptions may not always be correct.

According to American Bar Association Journal of August 10, 2010, researchers discovered that “… in certain areas, such as convincing a judge to set bail, allowing a defendant to enter a plea agreement, or in handing down a suitable sentence, public defenders and private lawyers are almost equally effective.

But race and the type of an attorney a defendant has seems to plays a large role in whether a defendant will be granted bail. The ABA study revealed that it was 2.7 times more likely that a judge would order bail for a white defendant if he was represented by a private attorney. Black defendants with a private attorney doubled their chances of having their original charge downgraded.

Now, there is another twist in who provides better representation. A new report funded by the National Institute of Justice finds that members of the Defender Association of Philadelphia had an almost 20 percent higher rate of reducing murder convictions than lawyers who were appointed. The report, Measuring the Effect of Defense Counsel on Homicide Case Outcomes, authored by James M. Anderson, J.D., and Paul Heaton, Ph.D., of the RAND Corporation , found other areas in which the Defender Association of Philadelphia excelled over appointed counsel.

According to the authors:

  • The Defender Association of Philadelphia “reduce the probability that their clients receive a life sentence by 62%.”

  • Public defenders “reduce overall expected time served in prison by 24%.”

    To understand why public defenders are more successful than private attorneys, Anderson and Heaton interviewed Philadelphia judges, public defenders and appointed counsel, and found “…compared to the Defender Association attorneys, appointed counsel are impeded by conflicts of interest on the part of both the appointing judges and the appointed counsel, limited compensation, incentives created by that compensation, and relative isolation.”
  • Click here to read more.