Some poor people accused of federal crimes are represented by full-time federal public defenderss, others by court-appointed lawyers who bill by the hour. A new study by a Harvard economist finds a surprisingly wide gap in how well the two groups perform, the New York Times reports. The study says lawyers paid by the hour are less qualified and let cases drag on and achieve worse results for their clients, including sentences that average eight months longer.
Appointed lawyers cost taxpayers $61 million a year more than salaried public defenders would have cost. Salaried public defenders generally handle more cases and have more interactions with prosecutors, so they may have a better sense of what they can negotiate for their clients. Salaried lawyers also tend to have superior credentials and more legal experience. The federal system handles about 5 percent of all criminal prosecutions and is relatively well financed. The implications of the study for the states may be limited. But more than half the states use a combination of public defenders and appointed lawyers, and most indigent defendants are not represented by staff public defenders at the trial level. The new study, looking at federal prosecutions from 1997 to 2001, was done by Radha Iyengar, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard.