Though criminal lawyers and public defenders sat for the same exams to become lawyers, a public defender isn’t always the best option for your case. Take the following into consideration when deciding whether to hire a private attorney or go with a public defender.
The vast majority of defendants plead guilty without going to trial in return for a plea bargain. A plea bargain often consists of a reduced sentence or the dropping of certain charges. Even if you don’t go to trial, your lawyer will have to negotiate with the prosecution and the judge to achieve a plea bargain that satisfies the prosecution and benefits you. You want someone who can argue your case proficiently even if it never goes before a jury.
Since you get to decide whether your case goes to trial or not–i.e., whether you will plead guilty or not guilty–having a lawyer who can weigh the potential benefits and costs of a trial is absolutely vital. Unfortunately, the public defender system is overloaded in many states. Even a great lawyer might not be able to help their client properly if they have too many other clients demanding their attention. A private lawyer gives you the benefit of their time and dedication to your case because they aren’t strapped down by a clogged system. Public defenders are under pressure to resolve a case quickly more than anything else. This can result in a disadvantage to you, the client, even if you choose a plea bargain over a trial.
One benefit of a public defender is that they have a broad experience with different types of charges and defenses. However, there’s no guarantee that they can handle your case as expertly as a private lawyer who specializes in your kind of case. You’ve probably seen ads for many different lawyers specializing in everything from DUIs to medical malpractice suits. Each private lawyer you speak with will have a similar niche. Consulting a private lawyer is usually low-cost or free, and allows you the option of saying no if they don’t feel like a good fit. You can ask them if they have handled cases like yours before, or about their experience with criminal cases in general. Being able to “shop around” is a huge benefit of seeking a private attorney. It is very unlikely you will be able to change public defenders.
Now, the main issue around hiring a private attorney is the money involved. A tight budget is a valid reason to choose a public defender. If you have some wiggle room, you have another reason to “go shopping:” different lawyers have different payment scales. You can decide whether a higher cost is worth it–and don’t assume it won’t be. A private lawyer with more resources will have contacts with laboratories and expert witnesses that a public defender won’t have. It’s up to you to decide how much your time and livelihood is worth.
It’s also important to remember that public defenders are not inherently free of monetary costs to you, either. Sometimes, as part of a plea bargain or guilty sentence, the court will order you to pay a fee to your attorney. You may not even qualify for a public defender if you don’t collect Supplemental Security Income, make money above a certain level, or have a net equity of $2500 or more. This is one way the court tries to limit doling out public defenders. However, it all shows that you don’t have to be “rich” in order to hire a private attorney.
Choosing a private lawyer may require an initial time and monetary investment, but it’s an investment that can pay dividends into your future.