Does a Public Defender Provide Good Representation in Hawaii?


Does a Public Defender Provide Good Representation in Hawaii?

Getting arrested can be scary. Even if you’re innocent, proving it takes time and money. That’s why the right to an attorney is so important. But are public defenders as good as private lawyers? Here’s an in-depth look at public defenders in Hawaii.

What is a Public Defender?

A public defender is a lawyer who represents people who can’t afford one. Their services are free to qualifying clients. Public defenders work for the government, not private firms. They handle a high caseload for low pay compared to private attorneys.

Public defenders take cases in criminal, juvenile, family, and civil law. They provide legal advice, investigate cases, negotiate plea deals, and represent clients in court. Their goal is to ensure everyone receives competent legal counsel, regardless of income.

Public Defender Services in Hawaii

The Office of the Public Defender in Hawaii provides legal services in all four counties. Public defenders handle around 80% of criminal cases here. They take cases at all levels, from minor misdemeanors to serious felonies.

Staffing levels are a chronic issue. Hawaii’s public defenders juggle heavy caseloads of 400-500 clients per year. That’s above the recommended limit of 150-300 cases. High turnover results from the demanding workload and relatively low pay. But dedicated attorneys keep returning to serve Hawaii’s neediest citizens.

How Public Defenders Compare to Private Attorneys

Public defenders work just as hard as private lawyers. They’re ethical attorneys who zealously defend their clients. Public defenders often have more trial experience than private counsel since they handle so many cases.

However, public defenders do face disadvantages:

  • Limited time and resources – Defenders have high caseloads on tight budgets.
  • Fewer support staff – Most rely on limited investigative and expert services.
  • Less flexibility – Their options are restricted by office policies.
  • Tough clients – Many deal with clients struggling with poverty, mental illness, or addiction.

Despite these challenges, public defenders still provide skilled, devoted representation. But some key differences remain between appointed and retained counsel.

Freedom to Focus

Private attorneys control their caseload. They can devote more time to clients who pay their fees. Public defenders must spread their time across all cases assigned to them.

Better Resources

Private lawyers have more flexibility in hiring experts and investigators. These services help build a stronger defense but are limited for public defenders.

Client Relationship

Retained lawyers often form closer relationships with clients who choose them. But public defenders work hard to build trust with clients despite being appointed to them.

Plea Bargaining

Overworked public defenders may be more likely to recommend plea deals. Private lawyers with more time may negotiate better deals or pursue trials.


Public defenders’ heavy caseloads can limit time spent advocating for clients at sentencing. Private attorneys may have more flexibility.

Do Public Defenders Get Good Results for Clients?

Public defenders achieve relatively positive case outcomes despite their challenges. Studies show appointed counsel:

  • Obtain similar conviction rates as private attorneys
  • Secure comparable sentence lengths in many cases
  • Reduce incarceration time through effective plea bargaining

With fewer cases and resources, defenders can’t guarantee the same results as private counsel. But they utilize their expertise to get the best deal possible for each client.

Public Defender Success Stories

Public defenders have won major cases in Hawaii’s history. Here are some high-profile successes:

State of Hawaii vs. Christopher Deedy

In 2019, public defender Thomas Otake secured an acquittal for federal agent Christopher Deedy, who was charged with murdering a local man in Waikiki. Otake argued Deedy fired in self-defense.

State of Hawaii vs. Mark Takai

Honolulu public defender Jon Ikenaga helped overturn a murder conviction for Mark Takai in 1983. Ikenaga proved Takai’s confession was coerced. After 15 years, Takai was released and exonerated.

State of Hawaii vs. Richard Keala Kahuanui, Jr.

Maui public defender Peter Eckerstrom convinced the Hawaii Supreme Court to order a new trial for Richard Kahuanui, Jr. due to juror misconduct. Kahuanui was later acquitted of sexual assault charges at his retrial.

Public Defender Alternatives

People who don’t qualify for a public defender have options:

Pro Bono Assistance

Non-profits like Hawaii LawHelp connect low-income clients to attorneys willing to provide free legal services.

Court-Appointed Lawyers

Judges may appoint private lawyers for defendants who don’t qualify for public counsel. The state pays appointed attorneys reduced rates.

Payment Plans

Some private attorneys allow clients to pay in installments. Defendants may prefer this to relying on a public defender.

How to Get a Public Defender in Hawaii

People charged with a crime who can’t afford a lawyer can request public counsel at their first court hearing. They must verify their low income to qualify.

Public defender services are available across Hawaii’s four counties:

Public defenders work hard to uphold every client’s constitutional right to legal counsel. While imperfect, they provide skilled representation to those who need it most.

The Bottom Line

Public defenders have a tough job but do it well. If you qualify for their services, don’t hesitate to use them. Many in Hawaii rely on these devoted attorneys to protect their freedom.