Public defense systems help to make real the promise of the Bill of Rights. The Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right to counsel to people charged with crimes that could result in jail or prison time. In Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court held that this means the State must provide an attorney to any criminal defendant who cannot afford to hire one.
Public defense systems save money. Without a public defense system, a person’s lack of money may make it hard for them to find effective counsel and cause them to be unprepared for court. Their lack of effective representation can lead to additional costs for the State through trial delays and increased appeals. Trial delays as a result of ineffective representation often mean defendants spend more time in pre-trial detention, increasing the costs on counties which maintain the local jails. Public defense systems also help to minimize people’s future barriers to employment in a state where 1 in 4 adults have a criminal record. Criminal convictions often lead people to face collateral consequences—penalties and problems accessing housing, education, or employment opportunities. These consequences can follow people long after their formal punishment is over and have a significant impact on their ability to make a living.
Public defense systems promote public safety. North Carolina District Attorneys have complained that the absence of quality public defense hampers their ability to deliver justice. Ineffective assistance of counsel creates an unacceptable risk of people being convicted of crimes they did not commit. This is not only terrible for the innocent defendant, but it costs the State money and resources and also means a guilty person goes free. Moreover, the quality of police work in a community is generally better when it is regularly tested in court by effective lawyers for the defense.
Public defense systems promote fairness in criminal justice. Ineffective assistance of counsel does not only cost money and create public safety risks. In addition to excessive pre-trial detention, delayed justice, and employment barriers, it can create pressure on people to plead guilty, a situation which can lead to excessive sentences and wrongful convictions. The country cannot deliver on its promise of equal justice under law if it does not provide a means of ensuring that every person whose liberty is in jeopardy has access to quality legal representation.