You Get What You Pay For?

There is the old adage that, as lawyers go, you get what you pay for. And it follows, therefore, that criminal defendants provided with a free attorney might not get the vigorous defence to which they are constitutionally entitled.

This week, New York’s highest court will hear a case that argues the public defender system is broken. It started with a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of a woman whose public defender convinced her to plead guilty to a felony when what she’d done — attempt to bring her imprisoned boyfriend a small amount of marijuana — was later found not to be a felony at all.

The woman’s case eventually made it to the hands of a team at Paul Weiss, who wondered how many cases there were like the woman’s.

The New York Times has a profile of the woman, Kimberly Hurell-Harring, and earlier this week ran a thorough article of the New York public defender system and what this case could be mean to it.

Public defenders, of course, are far from all bad — many, in fact, are very very good. The public defenders we know are amazingly smart and dedicated and were certainly not forced to do the work because they didn’t have other options. They just believe in the right to counsel and spend their lives making sure it happens.

But even the best of the public defenders are overworked, with enormous caseloads. There is always a movement by politicians to limit the number of cases they can handle at any one time, but no one has yet come up with a plan for where exactly the extra cases would go.

The New York Court of Appeals is not deciding the case on the merits, but instead whether the arguments raised by the ACLU can be decided by a court. But, for the week at least, the eyes of many states will be on New York’s public defender system.

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