PDs and Private Lawyers: What the Numbers Mean

Here are some conclusions that can be drawn from Hartley’s data:

In Cook County, Illinois, in 1993, convicted defendants were:

  • 1.81 times as likely to have been released on their own recognizance if they were charged with a class 1 felony as if they were charged with a class X felony.
  • 2.10 times as likely to wind up incarcerated if they were hispanic as if they were white.
  • 1.46 times as likely to wind up incarcerated if they used a weapon as if they didn’t.
  • 2.36 times as likely to wind up incarcerated if they were male as if they were female.

Convicted white defendants were 2.74 times as likely to have been released on their own recognizance with a hired lawyer as with an appointed lawyer.

Assuming that they were convicted:

  • Employed defendants were 2.12 times as likely to get their primary charges reduced if they had hired counsel as if they had public defenders.
  • Unemployed defendants were 1.96 times as likely to get their primary charges reduced if they had hired counsel as if they had public defenders.

(Overall, there was not a statistically significant difference (b=.37, SE=.24, Exp(ß)=1.45) between defendants with private lawyers and defendants with public defenders in getting their primary charge reduced. Only 225 defendants in the entire 2,850-person sample got their primary charges reduced, from which I deduce that 92 of those defendants had court-appointed lawyers and 133 had hired lawyers. Employment data were missing for 381 defendants, which must account for the difference between the numbers for employed and unemployed defendants, and for the entire sample.)

Again, assuming that they were convicted:

  • Defendants out on their own recognizance (N=818) (see my discussion of Hartley’s definition of his first dependent variable here) were 1.88 times as likely to get their primary charges reduced if they had hired counsel as if they had public defenders.
  • Defendants who were detained or on bail (N=2032) were 2.12 times as likely to get their primary charges reduced if they had hired counsel as if they had public defenders.

(Everybody was either out on recognizance or detained or on bail. My crash course in statistics didn’t teach me enough to understand how, if defendants out on their own recognizance were 1.88 times as likely to get their primary charge reduced with a hired lawyer, and if defendants detained and on bail were 2.12 times as likely to get their primary charge reduced with a hired lawyer, all defendants were less than 1.88 times as likely to get their primary charge reduced with a hired lawyer.)

Still assuming that they were convicted:

  • Defendants who pled guilty were 2.17 times as likely to get their primary charges reduced if they had hired counsel as if they had public defenders.
  • Defendants who were out on their own recognizance were 2.05 times as likely to wind up incarcerated if they had hired counsel as if they had public defenders.
  • Defendants who went to trial (and lost—remember, all of this assumes a conviction) were 3.48 times as likely to wind up incarcerated if they had hired counsel as if they had public defenders.
  • Defendants who went to trial received sentences 46.87 months longer, on average, with hired counsel than with public defenders.
  • Black defendants were 1.96 times as likely to get their primary charges reduced if they had hired counsel as if they had public defenders.
  • Male defendants (90.5% of the sample) were 2.22 times as likely to get their primary charges reduced if they had hired counsel as if they had public defenders.

I’ve underlined the three areas where public defenders do better than hired counsel. I haven’t underlined the seven areas where hired counsel (according to Hartley’s numbers) do better.

Also, the statistically-insignificant overall numbers would have hired counsel doing better than appointed counsel on getting defendants released on their own recognizance (by 11%), getting primary charges reduced (by 45%), by avoiding incarceration (by 21%) and by minimizing sentences (.75 months shorter, on average). So the numbers are statistically insignificant—that is, there is calculated a more-than-5% chance that they are due to chance—but all point in the same direction, which suggests that they are not due to chance.

Hartley and his colleagues claim that:

This study suggests that there is little difference in the “quality” of legal defense provided by private attorneys and public defenders. Public defenders are as effective as private attorneys in Cook County.

Unless that’s the result one is looking for, the study—as Hartley and his colleagues present it—suggests no such thing. Don’t believe me? Ask a black defendant. Or an employed defendant. Or a male defendant. Or an unemployed defendant. Or a defendant who pled guilty. Or one who’s out on bail. Or one who’s detained.

Next: What Hartley’s data are missing.

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