What is the difference between a public defender and a professional attorney?
The United States Supreme Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) that all individuals being prosecuted on charges that may include incarceration terms should have competent representation from a professional legal counselor who can ensure that all of the defendant's rights are recognized by the court during the process. Going to jail amounts to inhibiting individual liberty, so those who are convicted should be prosecuted according to the rule of law set forth by the Constitution. But, are all legal counselors equally competent?
The short answer to the question of equal competence is that all lawyers are not the same, but that is mostly for reasons of experience. Public defenders are utilized differently by different state or local courts and, oftentimes, a designated public defender is a young attorney. Some public defenders actually work for the state as a designated indigence representative. However, they are also very aware of how the system works, and many are more aggressive when representing a defendant who is being charged on weak evidence.
Of course, public defenders are always representing indigent-level defendants because of the rules of assignment. Those who the court determines can afford an attorney will not have a public defender. This means that defendants will have no choice but to retain an attorney in many cases. Regardless of the situation, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of legal counsel.
There is a perception by some that public defenders aren't as competent as professional attorneys; however, the perception that they are inferior is not necessarily valid. In many metropolitan areas where the P.D office is part of the daily court process, the associated attorneys are often very well-respected within the system, which can be a real advantage for a qualified defendant who is facing prosecution on questionable charges. It is important to remember that the police officers actually bring the charges as an officer of the court, and the public defender office works with them every day.
Attorneys often do more negotiating than actual court procedure, and having an attorney whom the court knows can be a real advantage. The disadvantage comes in when a designated public defender becomes too friendly with the court administrators who often choose them for employment. Because of case overload and the desire to protect their careers, young attorneys will often help steer the defendant right into a conviction. Trading deals are common in local courts with a multitude of indigent defendant cases. Court politics can be a problem with an assigned public defender who you cannot choose and who may not want to anger the prosecutor. The same state that is prosecuting is also providing an employee to represent the defendant, which can be viewed as a direct conflict of interest.
Paid Professional Criminal Defense Attorneys
The first thing to remember when choosing between a public defender and a private attorney is that public defenders are only involved in criminal cases, so the alternative will be an experienced criminal defense attorney. Court politics are often reduced when a defendant has a private attorney whose incentive is paid professionalism. Effective private criminal defense attorneys pride themselves on a solid, aggressive defense of their clients, especially when the state is attempting a weak prosecution. There are many times when a paid legal case representative can get a case summarily dismissed that would have resulted in some sort of prosecution with a public defender.
While a public defense can be generally successful in a plea negotiation, complete case dismissal with a public defender counselor is rare unless the defendant is acquitted in a trial. Also, public defenders are not always as eager to take a case to trial because of case overload. If you need a case dismissal, you need to retain an attorney in most situations. The same is true for an expungement motion as well, as courts are very reluctant to seal a court record unless the request qualifies completely according to law and is presented in a hearing.
One good thing about many public defender offices is that the competition for positions is keen among many excellent young attorneys who want to gain experience in the criminal defense area before venturing into private practice. And, many of these attorneys are ingrained from law school to uphold the Constitution, which they have spent years studying. However, the general concept that you get as much justice as you can afford can be a very real experience when facing a significant incarceration period. When you need a private attorney, it is often best to consider it as an investment in your future.