In most American counties, some indigent criminal defendants are represented by a public defender, and others by a private court-appointed lawyer. A new RAND study focusing on Philadelphia exposes a vast difference in how clients fare depending on the kind of lawyer they are assigned.
The startling findings show that merely providing an indigent defendant a lawyer, as the Constitution requires in felony cases, is not enough to secure justice. If that lawyer is not screened for quality, trained to handle the client’s type of case or paid enough to cover the time required, the client is unlikely to get fair treatment — whether in the Philadelphia system or anywhere else.
The study examined murder cases of indigent defendants with similar profiles in the city from 1994 to 2005. The conviction rate of clients represented by staff lawyers working for the public defender association, a nonprofit organization that the city pays for its services, was 19 percent lower than those represented by court-appointed lawyers working alone. Their expected time served in prison was 24 percent lower, and they were far less likely to get a life sentence.
FLC host Judge Eugene Hyman says "There are so many variables in a defense. The system of elected judges and powerful district attorneys can easily fail the indigent defendant."