Massachusetts - It is easy to imagine that public defenders who work full time for the state, probably burdened with heavy caseloads and a lighter paycheck than they could earn in the private sector, could feel burnout kick in fairly quickly. Many or most would likely be relatively new to the profession, whereas bar advocates are often farther along in their careers and bring valuable legal savvy and experience to the courtroom and to their interactions with the parties involved. The state could mitigate these problems by increasing compensation for its staff lawyers, hiring more of them, or reducing caseloads. For the latter, tighter verification of indigence, and reclassification of some relatively minor offenses to eliminate the requirement for representation, have been proposed.
But the governor’s idea seems destined to barely keep up with the quality of legal help given indigent clients now.
And then there’s the money. Public defense is always on the public’s dime. But contracts case-by-case with private lawyers avoid overhead expenses that would mount steeply under the plan: office space, equipment, travel expenses for courthouses around the state, vacation and holiday pay, pensions, and so on.
In states that use a system along the lines of what Gov. Patrick proposes, the quality of justice tends to suffer, Mr. Benedetti told the editorial board. He said Massachusetts’ system is viewed by outsiders as a model; and said that, far from saving $45 million a year, the change could end up costing taxpayers more in the long run.
A part of Mr. Patrick’s proposal we endorse, as does the CPCS, is stepping up efforts to verify an accused person’s ability to pay for a lawyer. Reducing caseloads, and collecting at least something toward the cost of counsel, would save money while being eminently fair. But that and other improvements can be done through judicious changes to the current system.