- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2000

While lawyers in Florida are getting a bad rap this week, and well they should, there is some good news on the jurisprudence front. A report by the Justice Department informs us that felons who are assigned public defenders are no more likely to be convicted than those with private lawyers. Many conclusions can be drawn here, and while it is a great reflection on the public defender system, it also tells us that those with private attorneys are being drastically overcharged for the same results.

There is a downside. They found that 71 percent of those with public defenders who were found guilty or pled guilty were sentenced to prison, compared to only 54 percent of those with private lawyers. Even so, it would be in your best interest to never look a gift lawyer in the mouth. It could be that judges feel felons with no money are much more likely to return to a life of crime than felons who can afford to pay the stiff fee charged by a country club lawyer.

Most of those who were assigned a public defender remained behind bars until the trial. This would be the smart thing to do, because if you could afford bail, you probably would be hard-pressed to tell the judge you couldn't afford an attorney. I believe that public defenders are on the bottom of the fee chain. An attorney does not elect to become a public defender to get rich, which is all the more reason they should be congratulated for the outstanding record they have achieved.

While it is true that minorities and the poor account for a higher percentage of public defender cases, the conviction rates were still about the same as for those who could afford their own lawyer. I don't know if it was a good idea to release this report. It will only encourage those in the business of committing a felony to hide their assets. Let's face it, getting an attorney for free when some receive hundreds or even thousands of dollars an hour, and getting the same results, is a pretty good deal.

The biggest difference between public and personally financed lawyers was the amount of time they spent with the client. The private lawyer spent significantly more time with the client. I don't suppose the fact that most lawyers are paid by the hour had anything to with this increase in time spent with the accused. Are public defenders just a little bit sharper than their private counterparts, or does the fact that most attorneys are paid by the hour come into the equation?

As we watch the circus in Florida, where the court is getting a bad name, we can see what money can do to determine the outcome of any legal battle. It brings back the words of that great patriot who said, “Give me liberty or give me unlimited funding and I will get it myself,” or something like that. I think we all have felt that the system was a little bit tainted by the almighty dollar, and it is good news to find out that our public defenders have a record almost equal to their fat cat counterparts.

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