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Would a proposed law improve the criminal justice system?

If you’ve seen anyone arrested on television or in the movies, you’ve probably heard an officer say, “You have the right to remain silent.” Shortly afterward, that officer will say, “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”

The lines come from the Miranda warning, which is meant to remind you of your Sixth Amendment rights. However, as with so many things, there’s a gulf between the principle and the practice of the law. For example, who determines whether you can afford an attorney? That’s a question that Indiana lawmakers recently asked with the introduction of a new bill. The bill has received bipartisan support, but will it really lead to better justice?

Public versus private defenders

If it’s signed into law, the new bill will establish greater consistency for the appointment of public defenders. As one senator noted, each county currently has its own standards for determining when someone requires a public defender. The bill would set one standard.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that public defenders are free. But while giving more people access to public defenders is likely a good thing, would it lead to better justice?

As has been noted many times throughout the years, there’s a reason people often pay for private defenders. Public defenders are often well-educated, highly trained and highly skilled. Still, defendants who work with public defenders are more likely to spend time in jail than those who work with private defenders.

A report on the issue pointed out two trends several years back that still ring true. It noted:

  • Public defenders are overworked. They have less time to prepare for any given case and more pressure to advise clients to plead guilty.
  • Public defenders are underfunded. Public defenders receive less money than their prosecutor counterparts. This leads to the fact they’re understaffed and overworked, but it may affect their work in other ways. For example, if a public defender wants to call up an expert witness, what budget does the defender have available? Will they get the gold star witness or the cut-rate, budget store witness?

The result is that the Bureau of Justice Statistics found, in 2000, that private defenders were more likely to get their clients acquitted. When they were unable to prevent their clients from receiving guilty sentences, they were still more likely than public defenders to help their clients avoid jail.

Justice is worth the price of admission

At Kammen & Moudy, we strongly believe everyone deserves good counsel. We also understand that cases are about more than laws. They’re about lives. Making sure everyone has representation is a good first step. However, attorneys are not all equal. Some may be pressed for time and resources. They may let key arguments and bits of evidence slip through the cracks.

That’s why our attorneys take the time they need to review cases from beginning to end. They explore every option before making recommendations. And if a case goes to court, they go prepared to challenge every part of the prosecution’s argument.

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