Is a private attorney worth it in a criminal trial or should you just go with a public defender?


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Although the Sixth Amendment of the constitution guarantees assistance of counsel to indigent criminal defendants, questions exist about the quality of this representation. Critics assert that ‘you get what you pay for’ and that public defenders are less effective than privately retained counsel regarding criminal justice outcomes. Some research, however, reveals that public defenders are as effective as privately retained counsel because of their working relationships with prosecutors and judges, the so-called courtroom workgroup. The current study tested the assertion that ‘you get what you pay for’ by examining the effect of type of counsel (public defenders versus private attorneys) on four different case processing outcomes for a large mid-western jurisdiction. Results generally show that type of counsel has no significant direct effect. Tests for interaction, however, suggest that for some defendants, type of counsel interacts with other key variables to influence certain outcomes.

Source: “Do you get what you pay for? Type of counsel and its effect on criminal court outcomes” from Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 38, Issue 5, September-October 2010, Pages 1063-1070


Research Highlights

► Attorney type has no significant direct effect on four case processing outcomes: the release decision, the decision to reduce the primary charge, the incarceration decision, and the sentence length decision.

► Tests for interaction reveal that for some defendants, type of counsel interacts with other key variables to influence certain outcomes.

► Results suggest that there is little difference in the ‘quality’ of legal defense provided to defendants by private attorneys and public defenders.

► Mixed results were found for the idea of a case processing system characterized by the courtroom workgroup model of administration of justice. In some contexts defendants benefited from being represented by the public defender; in other contexts, defendants represented by private attorneys fared better.

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