Though the number of public defender offices in Texas has nearly tripled in the past decade, very little evidence is available regarding their advantages compared to traditional assigned counsel systems. The Public Policy Research Institute (PPRI), under the sponsorship of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, turned to Wichita County – which has one of the most long-standing public defender offices in the state – to fill the information gap and offer evidence-based guidance to counties.
- The study found that, compared to private appointed attorneys, public defenders provide a higher level of service. They meet with clients more promptly, spend more time on both misdemeanors and felonies, and engage in more assertive motion practice.
- Licensed investigation, rare among private appointed attorneys, is available to every public defender client. As a result, prosecutors have the evidence they need to recognize and dismiss cases that are not likely to stand up in court.
- Because of the higher dismissal rate, public defender clients are 23% less likely to be found guilty than other indigent defendants.
- Public defenders are also cost-effective, generating a net benefit of $204 per case to the county.
On the whole, public defenders can provide a higher quality of service at a lower cost than indigent defense systems using assigned private attorneys alone. These findings should give Texas counties confidence to explore whether a public defender office might be a good fit in their community.