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Being arrested and charged with a crime in the United States is no small thing. The country’s famously punitive legal system ensnares millions of people each year. Many of these individuals end up sitting in jail for weeks or months before they are arraigned. Others ultimately end up serving more time and paying heavier fines than necessary. Too often, the problem is people’s reliance on public defenders.
Public defenders get a bad rap. There is no question that, on average, public defenders deliver far inferior results versus private defense attorneys. But the poor outcomes that so many clients experience after being assigned a public defender are mostly the fault of the system. Still, it is important to understand the stark differences between the kind of defense one can expect to get with a skilled private defense lawyer versus gambling one’s life and freedom on the inconsistent performance of public defenders.
In confrontations with the legal system, spending more time on building a strong defense means spending less time behind bars. The key difference between the defense that one can expect from a public defender versus a private attorney boils down to time. Many public defenders strongly believe in what they do. But they simply don’t have the time or the resources to deliver anything resembling an adequate defense for their clients.
A private criminal lawyer often has paralegals, researchers and experts that they can call on to assist in building the strongest possible defense. Private criminal defense attorneys may spend dozens or hundreds of hours on a single client’s defense, finding every potential weakness in the prosecution’s case and devising successful strategies to exploit those faults. On the other hand, a typical public defender may only be able to dedicate a total of a few minutes to their client’s case. With almost no research, preparation and strategizing, public defenders’ clients often stand little chance of mounting a serious challenge to aggressive prosecutors.
Because around 85 percent of defendants nationwide elect not to hire a private attorney, the very fact that the client has hired a competent lawyer is often enough to seriously boost the client’s pretrial bargaining power. Prosecutors know that good defense attorneys with the necessary skills and resources backing them up can make even seemingly ironclad cases risky to take to trial. For this reason, overburdened prosecutors in cash-strapped court districts will often be far more open to negotiation with defendants who have retained competent legal counsel.
Even for those who aren’t charged with serious felonies, hiring a good private defense lawyer is often well worth the cost. Throughout the U.S. legal system, horror stories abound of people sitting in jail for months due to clerical errors, failure to file timely motions and other simple mistakes. These situations are frequently the result of public defenders simply forgetting to complete necessary tasks on their clients’ behalf.
Such situations almost never happen with private lawyers. Once retained, a private attorney will usually give their client a way to get in touch with them at any hour. One of the top priorities of any criminal defense attorney is getting their client out of jail as soon as possible. Even for those charged with minor crimes, hiring a private attorney can mean the difference between languishing in jail for months while awaiting arraignment and going free.
The only downside of hiring a private defense attorney is cost. While public defenders’ services are free, private lawyers may charge significant amounts. But hiring a good defense attorney is nearly always a good investment.
Public defenders get paid whether they win all the time or lose every case. Criminal defense attorneys are invested in winning. A good private defense lawyer can give a defendant the critical edge they need to succeed in the face of America’s formidable legal system.