clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why America’s public defender system is so messed up, explained in 2 minutes

Adam Ruins Everything looks at one of the ways the US criminal justice system is tilted against the poor.

In America, you have a right to a defense in criminal court. And if you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.

So the theory goes. But depending on where you live, the public defender provided to you may only have a few minutes to handle your case. In New Orleans, for example, a 2009 study by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that public defenders have just seven minutes to prepare for someone’s case and defend them in court. (And things appear to have gotten worse in Louisiana since then due to state budget cuts, according to a recent report from the Guardian.)

In a recent episode, the comedy series Adam Ruins Everything looked at how America’s public defender system got to be so screwed up. The big issues come down to money.

For starters, lawyers at big private firms can make more than double what public defenders make, according to a 2010 survey from the National Association for Law Placement. That creates little incentive for the best and the brightest to get a public defender job over a private law firm job, making it difficult for public defender offices to hire the people they desperately need.

Public defender offices are also notoriously underfunded. One example of the national problem: According to a 2009 paper by California Western School of Law professor Laurence Benner, for every dollar spent in California on prosecutors, just 53 cents is spent on public defenders. Prosecutors and public defenders are very often the two sides in court, since more than 80 percent of people charged with a felony are indigent and therefore likely to receive a public defender. Yet the sides are clearly imbalanced, tipping the system in the prosecution’s favor.

The result is yet another way America’s criminal justice system favors the wealthy: If you have the money, you can hire someone to work on your case at least eight hours a day and five days a week. If you’re poor, you’d be lucky to get anything beyond a few minutes.

Watch: The psychology of police sketches

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.