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Expert: Public Defenders More Effective In Representing Poor Defendants

BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick wants to overhaul the public defenders system in Massachusetts. Currently, the state pays private attorneys to represent indigent defendants. They’re hired under the Committee for Public Counsel Services, in the judicial branch.

Patrick is proposing a new state agency under the executive branch. It would be called the Department of Public Counsel Services, which would hire 1,000 staff attorneys.

Anthony Benedetti, head of the public counsel services committee, opposes the idea. He said the issues associated with the new plan are far greater than just whether full-time public defenders are less educated or skilled than their private counterparts.

“Not the cream of the crop. I’m talking about meeting minimal constitutional requirements. All you need to do is Google ‘public defender’ and look at what has been going on around the country, and in state after state you have systems which are underfunded, public defenders who are overworked, and so they are not able to provide effective representation,” Benedetti said.

“…Public defenders are better able to secure shorter sentences, better negotiate pleas and in general seem to produce quicker outcomes for their clients than do their contract attorney’s counterparts.”
– Radha Iyengar, London School of Economics

Radha Iyengar, who teaches at the London School of Economics, joined Morning Edition Tuesday to compare public defender systems across the country. She said the findings show that public defenders are more effective in representing indigent defendants.

“The findings are, in summary, that public defenders are better able to secure shorter sentences, better negotiate pleas and in general seem to produce quicker outcomes for their clients than do their contract attorney’s counterparts,” Iyengar said.

Although the findings show that public defenders are more effective in representing indigent defendants, the issue of cost is not as simple.

“On a pure wage-bill point, private attorneys will be slightly cheaper than public ones. But from a criminal justice budget point of view — which is of course the point of view that the state or federal government wants to take — it is still more costly to use private counsel than public defenders.”

Iyengar said that while salaries and benefits of public defenders cost the government more, private attorneys typically take a longer time to resolve a case, which raises overall costs.

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