Representation by Public Defenders

There are often speculations regarding Public Defenders such as if they take on this role to represent those in need to the best of their ability or to simply get paid. This video depicts what a Public Defenders' role is as well as a first-hand account of experience with a Public Defender.

Produced by Gabrielle Thompson

The Price of Freedom

By Gabrielle Thompson

A person’s wealth and economic means affect their interactions with the criminal justice system. Personal wealth allows an individual to post bail while awaiting trial or to obtain a private lawyer. A person of lower income cannot afford the same privileges, and therefore, is at risk of falling victim to a criminal justice system that is not equitable for all.

When people are first put in jail, they may be granted bail depending on their crime. Bail is an amount of money that can be paid in order to release a person from an initial holding cell before they must appear in court. Bail can be set at a high dollar amount, a percentage of which an individual would have to pay in order to be released. 

If someone has a bail amount of $1,000, they can pay $100 to get released, but eventually they must still pay the full amount. People of lower income may not have the money, not even the 10 percent required to regain their freedom as they await their court date. Thus, they must sit in jail until their trial, thereby losing the opportunity to work and earn money to pay a portion of the bail bond. It’s a lose, lose situation.

Another way in which people of lower economic means can fall victim to the criminal justice system occurs during the trial process. 

Public Defenders are attorneys who represent individuals who cannot afford to pay for a private lawyer. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Approximately 66% of felony Federal defendants and 82% of felony defendants in large State courts were represented by public defenders or assigned counsel.” 

Public Defenders have an abundance of cases to argue before the court. They may not have the same amount of time as private attorneys to thoroughly investigate their clients’ files and prepare to defend them effectively at trial. 

On a national scale, public defenders average from 50 to 590 cases a year according to the Bureau of Justice, but the American Bar Association only recommends a maximum of 150 felony cases or 400 misdemeanor cases per year, thus coinciding with the term “overworked.” 

Chris Welsh is a Public Defender in Upper Darby, Pa. He explains that he is responsible for arguing 70 percent of the court’s cases in front of a judge on average each day. Public Defenders are compensated by the county in which they serve. According to Welsh, they are often overburdened and underpaid.

The rules governing the way Public Defenders operate varies by county within each state. No national rules of operation apply. Welsh states, “It depends on where you are. There’s no one Public  Defender that is the same everywhere. There are rules that govern how the court works, but how our office works, in Philadelphia, is different from how our office works here [in Upper Darby].” 

In every area across America, the way to access a public defender is generally the same, though. Individuals accused of a crime are given an initial arraignment where the judge reads them their rights and states the charges against them. At this time, a defendant can decide to contact a lawyer or be appointed a Public Defender if they cannot afford a private attorney. Regardless, everyone has the right to obtain a lawyer. 

“The right to counsel is in the Sixth Amendment,” Welsh said. Some states do not hold an arraignment until after the person accused has a Public Defender or a private lawyer present. 

Public Defenders are not as likely as private attorneys to win cases for their clients. According to Caroline Wolf Harlow, Ph.D. and BJS Statistician, “Of defendants found guilty in Federal district courts, 88% with publicly financed counsel and 77% with private counsel received jail or prison sentences; in large State courts 71% with public counsel and 54% with private attorneys were sentenced to incarceration.” 

In this way, personal wealth is a major factor in the criminal justice system. Seventy percent of those 88 percent and 71 percent guilty verdicts were handed to people who are considered low income. Poverty, it seems, is correlated with incarceration. 

The United States does not deny anyone the legal right to obtain a lawyer, however, there is a divide in outcomes between people who can more easily afford legal assistance and those who cannot do so.  

While there are drawbacks to seeking representation from a Public Defender, there is one key benefit.  Public Defenders have the ability to access court documents without having to pay for them. Teresa Watford of East Orange, New Jersey sees this benefit as an important one. Her son was arrested and in need of counsel. He was a co-defendant in a trial. She sought a private attorney to defend him, while the other defendant used a Public Defender. 

“[Public Defenders] don’t have a lot of resources, but some that have that enthusiasm try to get the resources. He was an asset to everything in the courtroom which I didn’t have to pay because that was [my son’s] co-defendant,” Watford said. In this case, her son was facing jail time, but he had a co-defendant who obtained a Public Defender, and because they were co-defendants, they both had access to the same resources.

In 1974 the U.S. Congress created the Legal Services Corporation. They are the largest source of legal aid today for low-income Americans; however, they only help fund lawyers for those making a qualifying rate of  “$30,313 for a family of four” a year. Many Americans make more money than this, but that still does not mean they have the extra funds to hire an attorney. 

Watford, as mentioned,  obtained a private lawyer for her son, but she had no assistance in paying for this attorney. “It's all about money. It's all about zip code and income or being a single parent...doesn’t matter if you’re innocent or if you’re guilty,” she said. Watford believes people need cheaper lawyers, a larger bracket of individuals who qualify for the LSC or to lower the caseloads given to Public Defenders.

 Public Defenders are on the frontline of criminal justice reform based on who they represent. They are the leaders who have gone to law school in order to be the voice for those who cannot represent themselves in court. 

“No one becomes a Public Defender to make money,” Welsh said, “because we’re not making a lot.” He continues, “I started out making $48,000. I graduated at the top of my class, and the starting salary at the Public Defender’s office was $48,000. The starting salary at one of the big law firms, which I could have gone to work for, was $175,000.  So, no one chooses to become a Public Defender to make a lot of money.” 

According to Welsh, “In general, people that are Public Defenders really care about their clients, and they’re in this job for the right reasons.” 


"Explainer: The Role of the Public Defender"

Though many people look down on public defenders what they fail to realize is that they are the front line of Criminal Justice Reform as their job is to keep people no matter their salary out of jail/prison. Chris Welsh of Upper Darby's Public Defenders Office gives a little insight into the role of a public defender in the court of law.

Produced by Gabrielle Thompson

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