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Should I Use the Public Defender

“I’m not getting the public defender, I want a real lawyer.”  Often times I heard this phrase or something similar come from defendants when I asked as a prosecutor in South Carolina, “do you want to apply for the public defender?”  Believe it or not, public defenders are most definitely “real lawyers” and will provide you with competent representation despite what some of the criminal defense attorney websites claim. In my years as a prosecutor, I prosecuted hundreds of cases with a public defender on the other side.  Those folks weren't treated unfairly or unreasonably and I've seen some found not guilty at trial. With all that being said, the question remains, “Should I use the Public Defender?”.  The answer is this: No – unless you cannot afford a private attorney.  

The role of the public defender is to represent those folks who simply cannot afford to hire private counsel because of a lack of financial ability.  Many defendants do qualify for the public defender when clearly they could afford a private criminal defense attorney.  As a prosecutor, it never ceased to amaze me how someone could pay a bondsman to post a $100,000 bond, yet when I came time to get an attorney, they got the public defender.  

Caseload
The single most important factor to someone for not wanting to hire the public defender should be the caseload.  As a criminal defendant, you want to choose someone who is going to work diligently on your case, not everyone else’s.  A public defender in South Carolina can have as many as 200 pending cases at one time.  This is an extremely heavy caseload and no matter how important your case is to you, chances are, it’s not as important as the case they are working on at the moment.  A client of the public defender is competing with all of those other defendant’s for appointments, phone calls, and court time.

Reputation
A public defender get’s clients no matter what.  There will always be a steady source of clients to fill the office of the public defender.  On the other hand, a private attorney has to build a reputation, keep clients happy, and runs the risk of being fired by the client.  For private counsel, the outcome of a case affects their reputation and livelihood.  Therefore a private criminal defense attorney will make sure that no stone is unturned before reaching a resolution.

Price
“But I simply can’t afford an attorney.”  That too, was the response I got, when upon further questioning, I learned that they had not talked to any private attorneys, or if they had, they called the highest priced attorney around.  I agree, I wouldn't be able to afford some of those folks either.  There are plenty of private attorneys that will give you high quality representation for a reasonable fee. I didn't say “cheap,” but I did say “reasonable.”  Remember, the public defender isn't always “free.”  There is a nominal application fee and if you manage to get on probation, by South Carolina regulations, defendants who are appointed the public defender have to pay $500 to the State.

Don’t sacrifice your best interest for a few hours of overtime at work.  If you truly cannot afford a private attorney, by all means, use the public defender-that’s why the office was established and funded.  On the other hand, if you can arrange for the funds to hire a private attorney, you won’t regret it.  

As a criminal defense attorney, I will discuss your case with you for free if you are looking to hire private counsel.  My office takes credit cards, and in some cases will arrange for payment plans or delayed payment. Call me today.

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