What If Your Freedom Was In The Hands Of The Public Defender?

What If Your Freedom Was In The Hands Of The Public Defender?

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As a former public defender, I’ve had the honor of standing up for the poor, the forgotten, and the damned. This is the very essence of being a zealous advocate.

My colleagues in the public defender’s office are some of the best trial attorneys I know. They are skilled, energetic, courageous, and ambitious. They are guardians of liberty and defend their clients vigorously. I would trust my freedom in the hands of any one of them.

At the same time, I’m not naive to the harsh realities of what it’s like to work in the public defender’s office. Juggling heavy caseloads — and by heavy caseloads, I mean more than one hundred cases at a time — presents many challenges.

As if fighting gallantly in the courtroom is not enough of a struggle, public defenders often times find themselves in the awkward position of having to fight yet another “battle” — this time with their clients to disabuse them of a common misconception: that they are “working with the prosecutor” to obtain a conviction. While this is more perception than reality, the fact remains that public defenders are funded by the government, the very same body that is prosecuting the defendant. Therefore, it’s not hard to imagine why an “indigent” defendant may have the impression, as misplaced as it might be, that he is surrounded by government on both sides. Recognizing this inherent conflict, the Supreme Court of the United States said that, “an indispensable element of the effective performance of [the defense bar’s] responsibilities is the ability to act independently of the Government and oppose it in adversary litigation.”[i]

All of these factors contribute to the stigma attached to being a public defender: an overworked plea bargainer who works with the prosecutor to obtain convictions at the client’s expense.

Even after earning their client’s trust, public defenders are often confronted with the following question, “Do you have time to fight my case?” That question has the uncanny way of “creeping up” on the attorney at the worst possible time: when he or she has three cases scheduled for trial next week and countless motions sprinkled in between. In short, the attorney may be nothing short of overwhelmed.

While the honest answer might be an unequivocal, “yes,” that would do nothing to instill confidence in a person whose very freedom lies in the hands of the attorney, and who is already doubtful about the quality of representation that he is going to get. Gerry Spence offers some keen insight into “The Plight of the Public Defender.”

[i] United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 657 n. 17 (1984).

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  1. Greg Greiner
    2014-12-22 19:43:12

    It is a shame that public defender systems are not provided more resources. I have experienced that public defenders work extremely hard, and competently, for their clients. Since money and billable hours are not an issue, they are very honest regarding the merits of each case, and do not inflate client expectations to inflate their financial bottom line. Burnout, and poor management, are the two evils I see in the public defender system. How do we fix that? Provide funding for more attorneys, and give the attorneys an opportunity to advance so it is not a dead end job.

    1. mjdeblis
      2014-12-23 15:15:09

      Greg: Excellent insight ... I couldn't agree with you more! Thanks for taking the time to weigh in on such a critical issue.

      1. Jonathan Ingram
        2014-12-23 20:33:24

        In the UK we have had fully publically funded defence since the 70s. We call it Legal Aid and most defendants who appear before the Crown Court receive it. However it is very expensive and it is now being severely cut back. We generally feel it is the fairest system - because it is almost universal, we are not burdened by massive case loads but we are paid at similar rates to Public Defenders in the States. It seems that we are heading towards your system, I'm not sure that will be good for Justice though...

  2. Lohit Ganguly
    2014-12-24 18:55:34

    Here in India we have system very similar to the UK eccepting that the accysed/defendant has to accept the counsel he is provided if he wants to avail of Legal Aid at all that is. That is a problem because the quality of representation is almost always shoddy.

  3. Gerry Spence on Public Defending | Law Office of Colby T. Berry
    2014-12-29 16:27:19

    […] http://www.deblislaw.com/what-if-your-freedom-was-in-the-hands-of-the-public-defender.html […]

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