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How Does a Public Defender Differ from Private Counsel?

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In our criminal justice system, every person charged with a crime has the right to an attorney. This means that if a person cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed to represent him or her. The attorneys that are appointed on cases are commonly referred to as public defenders.

People always ask the question, “Why hire a private criminal defense attorney when I can have a public defender represent me?” Public defenders are very dedicated attorneys, but there are certain limitations that constrain them. For example, public defenders have enormously high caseloads and because they have so many cases, they do not have as much time to dedicate to each case as a private defense attorney can. A public defender’s case load can include more than 100 cases, and in some instances can reach upward of 200 cases. A private defense attorney usually has a case load of between 10 and 30 open cases at a time. The amount of time that an attorney can devote to your case can make a tremendous difference in the outcome, especially when it comes to reviewing the fine details in your case.

Another difference between a public defender and a private defense attorney is that by law, public defenders can only help you with your criminal case. By law, they cannot help you with any related civil matter or administrative hearing such as a driver’s license suspension hearing.

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A public defender even has limitations in helping you with your criminal case. Public defenders cannot help you before they have been appointed to your case. This means that they cannot help you before an arrest has been made or before a warrant for an arrest has been issued. On the contrary, a private defense attorney can help you during the investigative portion of a case and possibly prevent an arrest by providing the investigating officer information on your behalf. Even if an arrest is made or a warrant for an arrest is issued, a private defense attorney can speak with a prosecutor to arrange a self-surrender and bond so that you are not arrested at work or in some other public place.

Another major difference between a public defender and a private defense attorney is the amount of experience each has. Many public defenders — especially the public defenders dealing with misdemeanors — are younger, and this is their first job out of law school. They have not practiced as long and do not always have the same amount of experience in handling your case. You should always inquire into the amount of experience your attorney has in handling your case. There are public defenders that are devoted attorneys, but as pointed out above, there are constraints that can limit them in assisting with your case.

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