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Public Defenders as Effective as Private Attorneys

New research suggests that, in terms of influencing key judicial decisions, public defenders are as effective as their private counterparts.
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Perhaps it’s time for someone to come to the defense of public defenders. A newly published look at Chicago-area courts finds that, when you consider the actual outcomes of judicial hearings, these underpaid and underappreciated attorneys do just as well as their private-sector counterparts.

“This study suggests that there is little difference in the quality of legal defense provided to defendants by private attorneys and public defenders,” a research team led by Richard Hartley of the University of Texas at San Antonio writes in the Journal of Criminal Justice. “The type of attorney representing the defendant was not influential on any of the four decision-making points examined here.”

The researchers examined a random sample of 2,850 offenders convicted of felonies in Cook County Circuit Court, “a large Midwestern jurisdiction which is similar to other large, urban jurisdictions in the country.” They compared cases where the defendant was represented by a private attorney or public defender, focusing on four stages of the judicial process:

• The decision to grant bail. The researchers looked at whether bail was set rather than whether it was made, since the latter is more a function of ability to pay rather than quality of legal representation.

• Plea-bargaining decisions. This served as a measure of whether an attorney was successful in getting the initial charge reduced.

• Whether the defendant, once convicted, served jail time.

• The length of sentence imposed on those convicts who were incarcerated.

"The overall results of this study generally support the idea that there is no difference between private attorneys and public defenders regarding case outcomes,” the researchers conclude. “The type of attorney representing the defendant was not influential on any of the four decision-making points examined here.”

Two important caveats. The researchers did not look at convictions vs. acquittals. And they found that retaining a private attorney is apparently beneficial “for certain offenders and at certain stages” of the process. Specifically, they noted some interestingly varied outcomes when looking at a defendant’s race.

“White defendants are the only defendants who benefit from having a private attorney at the release decision,” they write. Specifically, they found whites with private attorneys are 2.7 times more likely than whites with public defenders to have bail granted.

For people of color, private attorneys may not help in getting bail, but they do facilitate plea bargains. “Black defendants who retain a private attorney are almost two times more likely to have the primary charge reduced than black defendants who are represented by a public defender,” the researchers write.

Why are public defenders so effective at representing their clients? One theory, according to Hartley, involves the "courtroom workgroup" model of justice, where the public defender, prosecutor and judge work together to dispose of cases.  He notes that when the system functions in this way, "public defenders are in better positions than private attorneys to negotiate favorable plea bargains and to mitigate punishment."

These findings are not likely to put any law firms out of business. But given the negative media coverage of public defenders offices, they do offer some reassurance that the system is reasonably fair, even for those who can’t afford an attorney.

“This study provides evidence that contradicts the idea that you get what you pay for, at least in Cook County,” Hartley and his colleagues conclude. In Chicago courtrooms, “Public defenders are as effective as private attorneys.”