PHILADELPHIA COURTS STUDY FINDS BIG DIFFERENCE
The outcome of criminal cases is significantly affected by the resources and competency of legal counsel, according to a Rand Corp. study of Philadelphia courts.
“The differences in outcome are striking,” says the report issued in December 2011. The report studied the Philadelphia Public Defender’s Office because it is the only defender’s office in the country where the office is randomly assigned every fifth murder defendant, while the remainder receive court-appointed private attorneys.
The report concluded that, compared to the court-appointed attorneys, the Public Defender legal team reduced the murder conviction rate by 19 percent. They reduced the probability that their clients received a life sentence by 62 percent. Furthermore, they reduced the overall expected time served in prison by 24 percent.
This suggests that the “defense counsel function makes an enormous difference in the outcome,” says the report for the National Institute of Justice.
The study suggests that public defenders may spend more time preparing each case than the private attorneys, in part due to financial incentives. In the Philadelphia system, independent appointed legal counsel receives a flat fee of $2,000 for pre-trial preparation if the case goes to trial. While on trial, independent attorneys receive $400 per day.
By comparison, the report says federal court attorneys earn $125 per hour in non-death penalty cases and $185 per hour in death penalty cases. Rand reports that “many respected attorneys refuse to be on the list to accept court appointments.”
The Philadelphia Public Defenders, however, are on a fixed salary and can spend as much time on a case as required. The defender’s office had also developed a team specializing in homicide cases, and the team had its own investigators and expert resources.
The 47-page document concludes, “a defendant’s time imprisoned may dramatically change as a function of the ordering in which cases are brought, a fact which raises troubling questions about the fairness and arbitrariness of the current system.”
The report concluded that had the 2,459 defendants who were not represented by the public defenders office actually been represented by them, 270 of them would not have been convicted. If the public defender legal team had represented all defendants, the aggregate prison terms would have decreased by a total of 6,400 years, saving $200 million, according to the report.
“The criminal justice system should mete out fine justice,” the report concludes. “Our findings suggest how far from this goal we are.”