Public Defender – Pros and Cons

If you are arrested for a serious crime and are facing penalties that threaten your liberty, such as jail time, you’ll need to carefully consider hiring an experienced defense attorney. Before saying “I can’t afford an attorney, so I’ll just plead guilty,” look out for your best interests and speak to a public defender or a private attorney who will often provide you with a free initial consultation. Even if you eventually plan on pleading guilty, you may discover that the government’s case against you is not as strong as you once thought; you or your attorney may be able to negotiate reduced charges, more favorable terms or sentencing.

The real difference between public defenders and private attorneys is the number of clients they handle. Public defenders have huge caseloads, much larger than that of private criminal defense attorneys. Whether your attorney is a public defender or private attorney, they work for you, and the more knowledgable you are the easier it will be to communicate and understand your options or even offer suggestions.

If you have been charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that the court will provide you with a lawyer (a “public defender”) if you are unable to afford one for yourself. The Missouri Constitution, Article 1, section 18(a) and Missouri rule 31.02 also gives the right to counsel.

The law concerning public defenders can be found under Missouri Revised Statutes chapter 600 and title 18 of the Missouri Code of State Regulations. The Missouri State Public Defender System (MSPD) provides legal representation to all indigent citizens accused of or convicted of crimes in Missouri at the levels of the State Trial Court, Appellate Court, Missouri Supreme Court, and United States Supreme Court. At the conclusion of cases handled by the public defender's office, they request a fee judgment against the defendant. Your income tax refunds and lottery winnings can be intercepted by the State of Missouri to pay for public defender fees.

Missouri State Public Defender
St. Louis City (314) 340-7625
Clayton (314) 615-4778
St. Charles (636) 949-7300

Who qualifies to receive a public defender?

Application for Missouri Public Defender (PDF)

A 2013 Missouri public defender report states, "The Public Defender Commission sets indigence guidelines, which are used to determine who is eligible for public defender services. Currently, those guidelines match the Federal Poverty Guidelines.

Strictly applied, that would mean an individual making only $11,000 a year would not qualify for a public defender.  According to recent reports, Missouri ranks 50th out of 50 states in income eligibility standards for public defender services, leaving a wide gap of ineligible defendants who, in reality, still lack the means to retain private counsel in the market.

Defendants have the right to appeal MSPD’s denial of their application to the court for an independent review of their eligibility. The determination of indigency can be appealed to the judge of the court in which the case is pending.  If the court finds you are unable to afford private counsel, the court can overrule the public defender denial".  The Public Defender office can tell you how to appeal the determination in your county.

During the last two decades, the number of persons sentenced for felonies in Missouri has nearly tripled. The public defender represents about 80 percent of those charged with crimes that carry the potential for incarceration. Since 1985, the number of offenders convicted of drug offenses (possession, distribution and trafficking) has increased by nearly 650 percent, while non-drug sentencing has increased by nearly 230 percent (source).

When the state established the public defender system in the early 1980s, one in 97 Missourians was under correctional control – either in jail or prison or on probation or parole (source). In 2007, by contrast, one in 36 was under correctional control, and 32 percent of those were incarcerated in prison or jail. During the decade of the 1990s, the population of Missouri grew by 9.3 percent, while the prison population grew by 184 percent (source). See: The New Jim Crow


Other than traffic tickets and similar violations, I have no experience with the criminal justice system. Unless I had no other choice, I would never defend myself in a situation where jail time is a consequence and my freedom is at stake. However, this is the most important time to understand the law, your options and potential consequences. If I had no other choice but to defend myself or rely on a public defender, I would prefer to attempt a hybrid defense; however, a criminal defendant in Missouri has no right to hybrid representation, a combination of self representation and assistance of counsel. State v. Williams, 681 S.W.2d 948, 951 (Mo.App.1984), citing U.S. v. Weisz, 718 F.2d 413, 426 n. 72 (D.C.Cir.1983)


Advantages of a Public Defender (Pros)

  • Public defenders work with the same judges and prosecutors day in and day out, and get to know their personal quirks, peeves and tolerances. They also see the same police officers testifying, and know who's likely to be a bad (and good) witness.
  • Public defenders usually work in "niched" areas of legal specialty, such as DWI or domestic violence defense. So they tend to be up-to-date on new law and legal theories in their area of specialty.
  • A public defender is likely to be very efficient at sizing up your case and presenting an acceptable plea bargain deal to the prosecutor and judge. As a result, you may be done with the criminal process and on with the rest of your life sooner than if you were represented by a private attorney.

Disadvantages of a Public Defender (Cons)

  • Court appointed attorneys are not paid very well to handle your case, so the incentive to work harder for each client may not be there.
  • ;Public defenders are very busy with lots of cases and may not be familiar with all the details involved in your case. They often only meet with their clients just minutes before entering a plea or getting ready for trial and may not have the time to properly defend you.
  • Public defenders often lack resources, and can't afford to hire expert witnesses or investigators.
  • Public defenders are often young and inexperienced, and are "cutting their teeth" on high-volume  cases.
  • Public defenders cannot represent you for any civil proceeding or administrative hearing that may be related to your case. For example, if you were charged with DUI, you’ll need to hire a private attorney to represent you during a driver’s license suspension hearing.

2008 episode of Due Process

Due Process, is a unique weekly television production of Rutgers School of Law-Newark and winner of 25 New York and Mid-Atlantic Emmy Awards.

Former Public Defender and Seton Hall Law Professor David Feige, produced the TNT TV series Raising The Bar, incorporating the uplifting and heartbreaking conflicts he witnessed in and out of court as chief of the groundbreaking Bronx Defenders. In the series, Jerry Kellerman, a public defender and the central character to the series, tried to find justice in a system plagued with corruption, bias and incompetence. The show ran for two seasons between 2008 and 2009.


See related: "Working with a Public Defender"

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