Academic journal article Justice System Journal

A Comparison of Sentencing Outcomes for Defendants with Public Defenders versus Retained Counsel in a Florida Circuit Court

Academic journal article Justice System Journal

A Comparison of Sentencing Outcomes for Defendants with Public Defenders versus Retained Counsel in a Florida Circuit Court

Article excerpt

Note on Research

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that a criminal defendant has the right to counsel for his defense, and the Fourteenth Amendment states that defendants must be provided due process and equal protection under law. Despite this, it is unclear whether indigent defendants in the United States-who are disproportionately ethnic minorities-are receiving such protections when it comes to the defense of their criminal cases. Approximately 80 percent of criminal defendants require court-appointed counsel because they are indigent. Many have questioned whether the case outcomes of defendants with court-appointed counsel are equivalent to those of defendants with retained counsel (Marcus, 1994).

The focus of this note is a public defender system. Public defender systems have been subject to much criticism because of the problems that some jurisdictions face. Many systems are underfunded, resulting in low salaries for attorneys and insufficient legal and support staff. The lack of funds and staff can result in overwhelming caseloads (Calogero, 1995; Drecksel, 1991; Marcus, 1994; Ogletree, 1995). It appears that one of the biggest problems facing all indigent defense systems is funding. Funding can affect the quality of services provided if there are not enough resources to do the job adequately. The current study addressed this issue by examining the public defender system in a northern Florida county. Effectiveness can be measured in a number of ways, including client satisfaction, number of dismissals, and favorable outcomes. This study focused simply on whether public defenders are able to obtain similar sentences for their clients when compared with private attorneys, controlling for relevant case characteristics such as charge seriousness and prior record. The state of Florida is considered to have an above-average public defender system (Spangenberg Group, 1996); therefore, negative results attributed to a good public defender system could have strong policy implications.

Previous Literature

According to Dixon (1995), there are essentially three theoretical frameworks for understanding sentencing decisions. The first framework, political theory, suggests that socioeconomic variables (e.g., race, income) play a role in sentencing outcomes. This is supported in research by Spohn, Gruhl, and Welch (1982) and Petersilia (1983), who state that minorities receive harsher sentences than whites for comparable offenses. Stolzenberg and D'Alessio (1994) found that there was a negative correlation between socioeconomic status and sentence length.

A second framework encompasses legal theory, which posits that legal variables, such as charge seriousness and prior record, are the primary determinants of sentencing outcomes. This, too, is supported in research by Chiricos and Waldo (1975) and Dixon (1995), who claim that once legal variables are introduced into the analysis, socioeconomic variables become insignificant and are supplanted by significant legal variables. In an analysis of public defenders (a socioeconomic variable), Taylor et al. (1973) reported case outcomes for defendants with retained counsel and public defenders did not differ significantly when legal variables were controlled.

A third framework, organizational theory, suggests that court processes and organization, such as the courtroom work group, are responsible for sentencing outcomes. Walker, Spohn, and Delone (1996) argue that, as part of a courtroom work group, public defenders are more successful than private attorneys in negotiating favorable outcomes for their clients. Barak (1975), however, argues that the high caseload and poor organization of public defender offices place indigent defendants at a disadvantage with regard to case outcomes. Research by Silverstein (1965), Stover and Eckhart (1975), and Hanson et al. (1992) concluded that defendants with public defenders were at a disadvantage in that they were more likely to be incarcerated or to receive longer sentences. …

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