The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of every person accused of a crime to have counsel for the purpose of his or her defense. Accordingly, Colorado has established the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, tasked with defending those who cannot afford to hire private defense attorneys. There is also an Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Districts of Colorado and Wyoming which defends people accused of federal crimes.
Given the expense of retaining the services of a private defense attorney, you may think that the idea of free legal counsel sounds great. For those without sufficient financial resources, this is probably the best option for the protection of their rights.
But there are several compelling reasons why a person facing criminal charges should hire a private defense attorney rather than relying on a public defender:
Public defenders are overworked - There is no question that public defenders have heavy case loads. For proof, let's look at the Colorado State Public Defender's Office which employs 490 attorneys. In 2017, the Office will handle about 174,000 cases and proceedings. On average, each attorney will handle about 1.4 cases or proceedings each day that court is in session. With such an immense case load, will the public defender assigned to your case be able to devote the time and effort that it deserves? Or should you hire a private defense attorney who has a limited case load?
Public defenders have limited resources - The state public defender's office has an annual budget of $86 million. This includes administrative costs necessary to support 490 attorneys and 294 other full-time employees who work out of 21 offices. Take that budget and divide it by 174,000 cases and proceedings. It works out to about $494 per case or proceeding. This is hardly sufficient to obtain justice, especially in a complex, high-stakes case.
A private defense attorney has access to professional resources - In many criminal cases, the defense effort can benefit greatly from the services of professionals such as a private investigator, forensic evidence specialist, or psychologist. While the state public defender's office employs its own team of investigators, it simply does not have the financial resources needed to retain some types of professionals. On the other hand, a private defense attorney can locate and retain qualified experts who could make significant and possibly case-winning contributions to the defense effort.
Your public defender may lack broad-based experience - Public defenders are highly dedicated professionals. But quite often, the state public defender's office employs attorneys who are working in their first jobs out of law school. This is not meant in any way to denigrate their dedication, perseverance or the quality of their work. In fact, quite a few public defenders have gone on to become distinguished and highly accomplished private defense lawyers. But with so much on the line in your criminal case, you need a highly experienced attorney on your side.