By Jamie Bence
The July 2011 issue of Reason – a popular, libertarian-leaning publication – features an article about the ailing public defender system in the United States, which, according to the article, often does a disservice to both attorneys and their clients. Clay Conrad, a private practice criminal defense attorney, draws on personal experience and studies which show that too often, public defenders are forced to take on too many cases with too few resources.
As a result, Conrad argues, public defenders are predictably forced to triage, accepting plea deals where practical and putting more time into cases they believe they can win. This system, according to the author, is far from ideal:
But it is not always easy to know which cases are the hopeless ones if all you do is read the offense report and spend a few minutes talking to the defendant and the prosecutor. Without putting in the time required to investigate the facts, the law, and the witnesses, it is unethical to recommend that a client accept a plea bargain. Maybe the offer represents the best possible result, but maybe the client is completely innocent and just too frightened to disagree.
Conrad also details how, in contrast to private defense attorneys, public defenders often lack the resources to run scientific tests that could prove their clients’ innocence. Moreover, he describes a sort of quid pro quo scenario, in which appointed criminal defense lawyers must retain a rapport with judges and court staff, and might find their appointments jeopardized if they represent a client too zealously- spending long hours on the case or requesting expensive tests.
Finally, Conrad concedes, good criminal defense is expensive, and “O.J. Simpson-style litigation” is not appropriate or even necessary in every case, but there is a middle ground in which most trials are won and lost:
I would, however, expect that before the taxpayers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to incarcerate one of their neighbors for years, branding him virtually unemployable for life and making him part of America’s permanent undercaste, they would want to ensure that he had a competent lawyer, with adequate resources and adequate time to do everything possible within the law to help his client. It is not an extravagance to make sure that before a man’s life is destroyed or taken from him, his defense has fully tested every element of the government’s case. The cost of an adequate defense pales against the cost of incarcerating an innocent man.
To read the full article on Reason, click here.