Does a Public Defender Provide Value in Chicago?

3scbuulajgg-matthew-hamilton-300x200If you were to ask any experienced defendant whether he or she would want to be represented by a public defender, the results might indicate a high level of unwillingness. This reluctance to place trust in a public defender is a consequence of years a negative reputation, which has been reinforced by a system that employs many people who have no business working in criminal justice, let alone any other helping profession. At the same time, we know that many of the people who are charged with a criminal offense do not have the funds to hire an expert attorney to represent them. The national statistics indicate an indigence level of about 80% amongst all arrestees.

Since poor people make up a disproportionately large segment of those who are arrested for felonies, the services of the public defender become an important cornerstone of the criminal justice system. Negligent and incompetent public defenders not only let down their immediate clients but also reduce public confidence in the system. This might mean that innocent people decide to abscond rather than take their chances with a system that has been shown to be unfair and unpredictable.

It is all too easy to write off the public defender as a practically failed attorney who cannot make it in the commercial world. We also question whether these defenders provide value for money. At the same time, we know that some public defenders are among the most committed and hardworking members of the legal community. What, then, is the problem that makes them yield such poor results?

A Funding Regime that is Inadequate and Inappropriate

While there is public support for funding the public prosecutors, few people are prepared to extend kindness and support to defendants and suspects. Moreover, the fact that many defendants rely on the public defender means that the caseload is expanding at an alarming rate. In simple terms, the people who are supposed to do this work do not have the time and money necessary to do it. Some states report a workload of up to 500 felonies for every public defender. That is in addition to the 2,000 or so misdemeanor cases that the same person has to handle on the go. Interestingly, the US department of justice recommends a maximum caseload of 150 felonies or 400 misdemeanors. The national statistics show that over 70% of all county public defenders have more cases than are recommended by the DOJ.

Some may consider this to be an academic debate, but the reality is that the interests of justice are not properly served when those who are supposed to get justice are denied proper representation. This is something that is fast approaching crisis levels. Therefore, appropriate interventions are called for. Defendants must, in the interim, ensure that they can raise the funds to have proper legal advice even when that advice is given outside the court. The county network must also significantly increase the funding and other support that is given to public defenders so that they can execute their duties more effectively.

If we continue down this route of cuts, the existing public defenders will leave public service. Alternatively, they will simply not do the core work that is expected of them. That means poorly prepared defenses, missing files, and broken appointments. Meanwhile, we risk incarcerating innocent people for no other reason other than the fact that they cannot presently afford the services of a half-decent attorney. The resultant delays and challenged decisions also mean that the criminal justice system fails to undertake its core responsibilities. Hiring a lawyer ought to be a right and not a privilege in criminal cases. For expert help with your criminal case, contact David Freidberg Attorney at Law at 312-567-7100.

(image courtesy of Matthew Hamilton)