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Globe Editorial

Patrick’s public-defender plan: solid services, lower costs

February 8, 2011

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HIRING ANOTHER 1,000 public defenders, plus hundreds of extra staffers to support them, might not seem like the most obvious way to save money. But when the state is already paying upwards of $160 million a year to 3,000 contract lawyers, Governor Patrick’s plan to add more in-house staff begins to look like a bargain — one that nevertheless preserves the rights of defendants who can’t afford their own lawyers.

Even if the changeover isn’t quick enough or smooth enough to yield the full $45 million in savings that Patrick included in his budget plan, the proposed reform is still worthwhile. It cuts costs in lean times, and it lays the foundation for still better representation when the economy recovers.

In many states, the court-appointed lawyers for those who can’t afford their own counsel are full-time public defenders. In Massachusetts, about two-thirds of defendants are granted free counsel, and private defense lawyers handle more than 90 percent of these cases, which run the gamut from criminal cases to family-court and mental-health matters. While these independent lawyers often have considerable expertise, they are paid set hourly rates. This system creates an incentive to draw out simple cases but may not provide lawyers enough support on complex ones.

By contrast, public defenders in a well-functioning agency can draw on the skills of a wide range of colleagues, helping them handle simple cases more efficiently, while focusing more attention on tough ones. Under the right conditions, defendants get better representation; a 2007 study of federal criminal cases found that on-staff public defenders won more acquittals and shorter sentences for their clients than private lawyers hired at public expense.

A lot depends on how many cases each public defender must shoulder. Under Patrick’s plan, the average public defender would handle 200 cases per year — well more than the 115 cases that the state’s public defenders now handle, according to Patrick’s administrative and finance office, but below the maximum recommended by a national public defenders’ group. Future administrations could reduce the caseloads, if necessary, when tax revenues rise again.

Given what Patrick is asking, it will be all the more important for the revamped public-defense agency he proposes to give extra attention to the hiring process. Most employers take care in recruiting even a single professional-level employee, much less 1,000. It’s at least as important to find the right public defenders as it is to build up the ranks quickly.

Patrick’s plan touches on other matters worthy of further inquiry, such as how best to verify defendants’ eligibility for free counsel. But the basic proposal is reasonable, and the Legislature should look beyond the inevitable concerns of private lawyers and give it the consideration it deserves.