Sunday, October 28, 2012

Wichita public defender secures better outcomes for indigent defendants

Texas A&M's Public Policy Research Institute has completed and published a two-year study (pdf) analyzing outcomes and costs at Texas' oldest public defender office in Wichita Falls, and the document is filled with fascinating data. Highlights below the jump.

Here are a few tidbits that lept out at me:

"Twenty-two percent of public defender clients are dismissed before charges are even filed, compared to just 13% of people represented by private assigned counsel. After filing, public defender clients are 23% more likely than other indigent defendants to have all charges dismissed." Defendants with retained counsel are slightly more likely than PD clients to have their cases dismissed.

When felony charges are not dismissed, public defenders are more likely to take the case to trial. Wichita public defenders take 1.37% of un-dismissed felony cases to trial compared to 1.25% for private appointed counsel and a .85% rate for private retained counsel. The rest plead out.

"[F]or every 100 typical indigent defendants, public defender attorneys will have 11 more dismissals and two more felony charges reduced to a misdemeanor."

"Once convicted, public defender clients can expect a 29% longer jail sentence than other indigent defendants. This translates to a sentence that is 11.8 days longer for a “typical” indigent defendant."

"[P]ublic defenders meet with clients more promptly, spend 21% more time on each misdemeanor and 42% more time on each felony case, and engage in more assertive use of pretrial motions. If private assigned attorneys applied the same level effort to their caseload at their current hourly rate the overall costs to the county would rise by $141,699."

"Public defenders use pretrial motions and hearings more frequently than private assigned attorneys." Wichita PDs file pretrial motions in 75% of misdemeanor cases compared to 22% for private appointed counsel. PDs file pretrial motions in 97% of felony cases, compared to 52% for their private counterparts.

"Indigent defendants assigned to the public defender are much more likely to have access to pretrial investigation services and experts."
"Indigent defendants can expect at least 40% more attorney time devoted to their case if they are represented by a public defender." 

Unsurprisingly, mentally ill defendants are more likely to be assigned counsel than to hire an attorney. "having a mental illness substantially increases the chance a person will be assigned counsel rather than hiring an attorney. Among otherwise identical defendants, a mental impairment raises the chance of a private appointed attorney by 33.7% and the chance of a public defender attorney by 24.4% while reducing the chance of a retained attorney by 20.4%."

Prosecutors are paid 10-15% more in Wichita County than public defenders with comparable experience and tend to have lower turnover. Average tenure among Wichita prosecutors is eight years compared to 3.4 years at the PD's office.

Whether or not defendants are released pretrial has a big influence on case outcomes:
The benefits of pre-trial release are apparent in the data. In Wichita County, statistically identical defendants who make bond experience:

• 86% fewer pretrial jail days
• 333% better chance of getting deferred adjudication
• 30% better chance of having all charges dismissed
• 24% less chance of being found guilty, and
• 54% fewer jail days sentenced
MORE: See a report from Texas Lawyer's Ex Parte Blog.


jdgalt said...

Those two percentages sure sound like selection bias to me. (Kind of like saying the Mayo Clinic has a higher death rate than some podunk clinic that never sees a cancer case.) I would think that the cases where a judge appoints private counsel are almost always going to be harder cases than the usual run that public defenders handle.

Anonymous said...

The criminal gets defended, but who was there to defend the victim? It doesn't really help that the police showed up later to set up a crime scene.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

JDG, digging closely into it, the data doesn't support that. You do not accurately reflect the reasons the report says private counsel are sometimes appointed over the public defender. HIRED attorneys tend to get "harder cases," says the repoort, but not private appointed counsel.

9:57, about 40% of felony cases in Wichita Falls are drug cases, so I'm not sure what "victim" you're talking about there. Anyway, given that crime has been declining overall quite significantly, perhaps your concerns are also being addressed.

PD said...

I'm not sure that it's the oldest PD office in Texas if it was established in 1987 as State Counsel for Offenders was around as early as 1974.

Notwithstanding that correction, with the work I have done in Wichita County, I have been nothing but impressed with their public defenders. They are professional, hardworking, and ethical with their representation. It's always great to see them and I'm glad they reaffirm what those of us in the business already know -- PDs put client's first and still save the county's money.

Anonymous said...

And then there are the others:

Anonymous said...

Sorry, left this one out:

Landon H. Thompson said...

These are impressive statistics and the Wichita PD deserves praise for their hard work and dedication. I do question the statistics on defendants able to bond out before trial versus those who remain in custody. It's not clear that they controlled for offense level or criminal history. While I can state annecdotally from my own experience that having a client out to help with investigation, locating witnesses, etc. improves the outcome generally, I also know that defendants with high level offenses or criminal history are both less likely to make bail and more likely to get stiffer sentences. The last set of statistics is probably largely due to a common third factor more than actual causation.

Dottie Carmichael said...

In response to the questions being asked, the study did use statistical methods to control for most key case characteristics including number and severity of prior arrests, number and severity of current charges filed, whether the defendant made bond, and personal characteristics (demographics, mental health status, substance abuse status), among other things (see Appendix A of the report). Defendants being compared were "statistically identical" in terms of these attributes making it an "apples to apples" comparison.

Anonymous said...