Being charged with a crime can be a scary situation. When it happens, you’re faced with a multitude of decisions you may never have had to make before; all of which can have extreme repercussions on your future. One of the first questions you’ll face, and arguably the one that has the most bearing on your future, is whether to hire a private attorney or to go with a public defender.
Public Defenders: The Pros
Everyone has the right to legal representation under US law, but finding it can be hard – especially when you’re in custody. As a result, public defenders are available to represent defendants who may otherwise be unable to find or afford representation on their own. Thus, two of the most advantageous parts of going with a public defender is that it won’t cost you anything, and the court will automatically appoint someone to handle your case. Another advantage for going with a public defender is that they are used to dealing with defendants in exactly the same situation, they have experience in how that particular court works, and since they’re automatically appointed to defend people, they’re able to garner a great deal of experience relatively quickly.
Public Defenders: The Cons
The fact that public defenders work for the government is a double-edged sword. Sure, they get a lot of experience, but that also means they can easily get overworked by having to handle more cases than other attorneys. Plus, they don’t make as much money as lawyers in the private sector, and therefore may have less motivation to ensure the best possible outcome for their clients.
Private Attorneys: The Pros
The major advantages of hiring private attorneys comes from the fact that not only do they have fewer cases (sometimes by orders of magnitude) and can therefore spend much more time on your particular situation than a public defender. Also, since private attorneys rely on the public hiring them, their record in the courtroom is far more important to their well-being than that of a public defender. As such, private attorneys are all but guaranteed to give you the best possible defense they can.
Private Attorneys: The Cons
Private attorneys can be expensive – with some of the more successful ones being nigh unhirable by the vast majority of the population.
So, Who do You Choose?
Whether you go with a public or private attorney will depend greatly on your own situation and past criminal history (if any). Generally speaking though, for relatively minor charges with equally minor penalties (think shoplifting, petty theft, driving without a license, and other non-violent misdemeanors), a public defender might be the most practical option if you don’t know an affordable lawyer. For more serious crimes, multiple charges, or matters where the outcome of the case can seriously affect the remainder of your life, you may want to opt for private counsel.