If you ever find yourself charged with a crime and cannot afford an attorney, the state or federal government has to appoint one for you, which means that your representation will be available without any cost to you. Is that a good thing, however? We’re all familiar with the stereotypical notion of the government-appointed attorney as a bumbling idiot, barely able to get out of his own way…but is that really accurate? If you cannot afford representation, should you seek to raise the money any way you can instead of using the attorney appointed for you?
First off, not all public defenders are bad, not at all. An acquaintance of mine was recently arrested in connection with a minor altercation. Even though the charges were ultimately dropped, the entire process was very unnerving for this person, who had never been in any trouble previously. Anyway, he could not afford an attorney, and was therefore appointed a public defender. It turns out that the public defender was actually quite good, and was, at least on this day, the master of the prosecutor. The point is that, depending on the nature of the offense with which you are charged, you may be just fine sticking with the state-appointed defender – what's required is an honest assessment of your situation, including the gravity of the charges, as well as the circumstances of the incident. For example, is the nature of the evidence such that you will likely see the same outcome, regardless of the representation? This evaluation is by no means an exact science, but if the case is relatively simple and routine, it is not going to be necessary to ask Aunt Sally to take out a second mortgage on her house to help you. That said, if your case is fraught with some complexity, or you’re facing a serious consequence if things don’t go your way, then you might want to place that call to Aunt Sally.
If you’re charged with a crime at the federal level, the Federal Public Defender’s office will be your resource if you cannot afford an attorney, and they’re even better; for one thing, the attorneys of the FPD must, by law, be paid equally to those who work in the U.S. Attorney’s office…which typically means that the FPD attorneys are well-qualified. Additionally, the caseload of federal defenders is usually a lot smaller than those of state defenders. The bottom line is that even if you’re facing a grievous consequence as a result of a federal charge, you may be quite satisfied sticking with a sharp federal defender.
When it comes to using a public defender, you have every right to vet the qualifications of the attorney appointed to defend you, just as you would if you were going out into the economy to hire one. As stated, the federal defenders will tend to be well-qualified (many work their way up through the offices of state defenders to become federal defenders), but don’t be immediately dismissive of state defenders, either; many a judge has shaken his head, watching a family go deep into debt to pay a serviceable, private attorney instead of sticking with the quality, free attorney that had been appointed for their loved one. In this case, you can use the stereotype as a broad guideline, as long as you do not let it rule every aspect of the decision-making process.
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