Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Public Defenders - Pay, Caseload, Etc.

I just listened to a podcast from this spring: The Legal Talk Network - Public Defenders, March 30.

Hosts J. Craig Williams and Robert Ambrogi interviewed two public defenders (one in LA and one in Boston) and a researcher who has worked on public defense issues. A few points:

  • Pay varies widely state to state. In California, public defenders have the same pay scale as prosecutors and have the potential for pretty good salaries. Not so in most of the country. In Massachusetts, public defenders start at about $37,000 -- lower than attorneys for any other state agencies.
  • Resources are an issue, apart from salaries. Prosecutors have whole police departments to investigate cases and find witnesses; public defenders often are frustrated by their limited technology and personnel.
  • An anecdote (from the Midwest, I believe): One public defender, moonlighting in another job to get a little extra money, reported that he saw a client twice in one day -- one in court and once in the evening when the lawyer delivered a pizza to the client's home.
  • Caseloads are an issue. Some public defenders are expected to handle so many cases they can't keep one client's case separate from the next one's in their minds.
  • The speakers all agreed that many public defenders do excellent work, despite the low pay and scant resources. The LA attorney said that sometimes a client who is eligible for a public defender gets a private attorney because the family scrapes together the money, assuming that any paid lawyer would be better than a public defender -- but, in fact, the private bar has quite a range of ability and experience. Sometimes that private lawyer does not represent the client as well as the public defender would have. The private lawyer might not have much experience in criminal defense, with no one in the office to train or supervise as a young public defender has.
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