Monday, December 26, 2011

In praise of public defenders

Since I'm working these days on the initiative to end death sentences in California, I'm more than usually aware of the inequities in our criminal justice system. Despite the earnest efforts of courts and lawyers (at least most of them, most of the time), the legal system is neither efficient or reliably fair.

A New York Times editorial reports on a study of one aspect of this that confirmed everything I've observed.

[A Philadelphia] study examined murder cases of indigent defendants with similar profiles in the city from 1994 to 2005. The conviction rate of clients represented by staff lawyers working for the public defender association, a nonprofit organization that the city pays for its services, was 19 percent lower than those represented by court-appointed lawyers working alone. Their expected time served in prison was 24 percent lower, and they were far less likely to get a life sentence.

Philadelphia’s public defenders, who are randomly assigned to represent one out of every five indigent defendants accused of murder, are paid decent salaries, have money to hire expert witnesses and work in experienced teams. Court-appointed lawyers, representing the rest, are poorly paid, tend to take on more cases than they can handle and generally practice without feedback from other lawyers. As a result, the study concludes, defendants with court-appointed lawyers often get inadequate counsel, in violation of the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, and are vulnerable to greater punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

It's as if the city of Philadelphia had set up a scientific experiment to discern what method of providing lawyers to the poor achieved better results -- and the results are in.

But wouldn't providing better legal representation cost a lot of money? Well perhaps, but we are talking about depriving people of their freedom, so we ought to get it right. And the same study suggests the cost may not be so large as we intuitively think.

... if the state helped to improve the quality of counsel, it would achieve fairer outcomes, and possibly reduce prison costs by over $200 million. The citizens of Pennsylvania would benefit, as well as the indigent defendants.

All this accords with what I've seen when friends ended up before the courts; see a longer description here. Overworked public defenders do a very professional job of representing people who've tumbled into the junkyard of society; we need more, not less, of them.

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