An Empirical Study of Public Defender Effectiveness: Self-Selection by the ‘Marginally Indigent’


Abstract: An econometric study of all felony cases filed in Denver, Colorado, in 2002, shows that public defenders achieved poorer outcomes than their privately retained counterparts, measured by the actual sentences defendants received. But this study suggests that the traditional explanation for this difference—under-funding resulting in overburdened public defenders—may not tell the whole story. The authors discovered a large segment of what they call “marginally indigent” defendants, who appear capable of hiring private counsel if the charges against them are sufficiently serious. When the sentence data was controlled for the seriousness of the charges, however, public defenders still performed more poorly than private counsel. These results suggest that at least one explanation for poor public defender outcomes may be that public defender clients, by self selection, tend to have less defensible cases. If marginally indigent defendants can find the money to hire private counsel when the charges are sufficiently serious, perhaps they can also find the money when they are innocent, or think they have a strong case.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure

Date of this Version

September 2004