If you’ve been charged with a crime, especially if it’s your first offense, you are probably panicked and very fearful of what the future may hold for you. If you’ve been charged with a minor offense, like a misdemeanor petit larceny or drug charge, you may think you can handle the legal battle on your own without the assistance of a criminal defense attorney. If you’re charged with a felony and facing prison time, you know your first order of business is to hire a good criminal defense attorney.
While it’s never advisable to fight any criminal charge without a lawyer, many people do appear in court at their arraignment without a criminal lawyer by their side even after being told they would fare much better with legal representation. Those who choose to go it alone are often arrogant enough to believe they can represent themselves in a criminal case, or they have chosen to waive legal representation for some other reason. It rarely ends well for people charged with a crime who don’t have a lawyer on their side.
Money, however, should never be a reason for waiving your right to an attorney because while private criminal defense attorneys can cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars over the course of your case, public defenders are provided at no cost to those who cannot afford a criminal defense lawyer.
Most of us have seen Law & Order or another similar TV show where the alleged bad guy is read his Miranda rights: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”
When the cops say “one will be provided for you,” they are referring to a public defender, who is a criminal defense attorney employed by a government-funded agency to represent those charged with crimes who cannot afford a private attorney.
Pros and Cons of Public Defenders and Private Attorneys
People often think that public defenders are inexperienced or incompetent young lawyers fresh out of law school who are overworked, underpaid, and often abused by their clients. While this is how public defenders are portrayed on TV and in movies, this is not the case at all. Some public defenders have chosen to represent those who cannot afford a private attorney for very honorable reasons and have all the skill and talent of high-priced criminal defense attorneys.
The most appealing “pro” of a public defender is that there is no fee for the defendant. You don’t have to pay a retainer, and you don’t have to pay ongoing legal fees for your defense as you would with a private lawyer. Another “pro” to hiring a public defender is that these lawyers work with the same judges and prosecutors and in the same courtrooms day after day, and that provides them a bit more insight into how a judge will rule or how a judge should be approached than a private defense lawyer would have. Public defenders know which judges and which prosecutors will be more likely to offer and accept a plea deal to a lesser charge.
The main “con” with a public defender is that their caseload is often very large, and that allows them less time to spend on each individual case. A private attorney who has accepted payment from you must devote proper time, energy, and resources to your case, provided you pay his or her legal fees. Public defenders only have so much time in a day they can spend on each case, and the most recent statistic indicates that public defenders spend about 25% less time than they should on each of their cases.
If you can afford the cost of hiring an experienced, knowledgeable criminal defense attorney, you should do so. After all, your freedom, future, and life are in the hands of your criminal defense attorney.