Publicly Shameful: The State of Public Defenders

You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in court. You have the right to talk to a lawyer for advice before we ask you any questions. You have the right to have a lawyer with you during questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish. If you decide to answer questions now without a lawyer present, you have the right to stop answering at any time.

These words constitute the Miranda warning, informing those under arrest of their Sixth Amendment right to counsel, among other rights. As unbelievable as it may seem, between 60 and 90% of people charged with a crime in the US require a public defender, a lawyer who is paid by the state, appointed for those who cannot afford an attorney. But who are these public defenders? Who do they serve, and how are they different from private St. Louis criminal defense attorneys?

You may be familiar with TV crime dramas such as Law & Order and CSI, wherein attorneys and police labor tirelessly through discovery, investigation, questioning, and their duties in general to ensure a fair trial and that justice is served. However, for the vast majority of US citizens, having a criminal defense attorney who can devote time, effort, and due diligence to their case is a luxury they can ill afford. On average, 80% of those charged with a crime cannot afford a private defense, such as People’s Counsel. These citizens are instead appointed a public defender who handles hundreds, if not thousands of other cases each year. Their pay is slim, often less than half of what a private practice attorney pulls down. Their offices are understaffed and underfunded, with 40% having no investigators on staff. And while private practice criminal defense attorneys take the time they need to defend each client competently and thoroughly, 90 to 95% of criminal cases are plea bargains, with the vast majority of these cases being those of public defenders. In some cases, public defenders had as little as 7 minutes to devote to cases that demanded over 70 hours of work—the system is untenable.

With public defenders so overworked, why would anyone hire them if they had a choice? In nearly every case, the accused has no choice at all. In the state of Missouri, a defendant can be caught in a “lawyer gap” where they are so poor that they qualify for food stamps, but are still considered wealthy enough that they should be able to afford a private practice St. Louis criminal defense attorney. It’s certainly not the public defender office’s fault—Missouri ranks forty-ninth out of fifty in the United States in per capita spending on indigent defense, while ranking eighth in prison population. The public defense system is in incredibly poor shape in the United States, and especially within Missouri. While we can push for legislation to fund public defenders, the best option for individual defendants is to hire a private St. Louis criminal defense attorney such as People’s Counsel.