Show me the money

[Megan] Another reader writes in on attorneys for the poor:

The real issue and tragedy is somewhat more nuanced, but still, ultimately, comes back to the sad mathematics of class, relative privilege, and social status. Many of these folks accused of serious crimes end up hiring private attorneysbut they get what they can afford, which usually is not the high profile, exceptionally experienced trial attorney, but someone who’s WAY out of their league defending such clients. I’ve had clients literally end up hiring a private attorney at the eleventh hour because they somehow thought that paying some guy $200.00 would somehow convince the judge that they hadn’t violated their probation by being caught with yet another crack pipe, and then testing positive for cocaine, or been charged with their fourth or fifth violation of a domestic violence protective order. In such cases, these attorneys end up having their clients plead to the same thing I was going to get themthey’re just hundreds of dollars poorer for the privilege. Where the other tragedy occurs are in rural areas, where there is no effective public defender system, and the courts end up appointing a local attorney, who might otherwise be a very competent lawyer, but due to the nature of the offense, is not competent to handle such a serious crime.

A number of readers have taken issue with my characterisation of public defenders as incompetent.  Which is not quite what I mean to say.  PD offices have multiple problems:  too many cases for each attorney, no money for help to sort through records or expert witnesses or extra tests, and the leak of experienced attorneys out of the system to places that pay better.  That doesn't mean the attorneys are bad; it means they often don't have the resources to mount a competent defense.  Private attorneys, at the level the poor can afford, possibly even more so.  Race is a problem in the justice system, but class dominates race, which is why OJ got off, and a number of poor white defendants don't.