Scott at Grits for Breakfast has more on my piece about public defenders.
One point I’d like to address that people often bring up in responding to my work on criminal justice reform is this canard that most defendants “get off on a technicality.” It just isn’t true. Sure, it happens. And those cases make the newspapers, or get picked up and demagogued by the Bill O’Reillys of the world. But the vast majority of prosecutions at all levels end with convictions. Juries walk into a courtroom thinking there must be some reason why they’re there. That is, they come in believing a crime was committed. And most people have a fair amount of faith in prosecutors and cops to get the right guy.
A defense attorney’s job, then, is to convince the jury either that (a) no crime was actually committed, or (b) the cops and prosecutors screwed up, and got the wrong guy. That’s a pretty tall order. Justified or not, most people have a fair amount of faith in public servants to get it right most of the time.
Data at the state level is hard to come by, but at the federal level, prosecutors have won guilty verdicts from juries at somewhere around an 80-90 percent clip (as noted in the linked article, the figure’s lower for rarer, non-jury trials). And that’s after they get guilty verdicts in the 90 percent of cases that are plea bargained before ever making it to trial. Once they win a guilty verdict, that verdict is upheld on appeal about 80 percent of the time (of course, this is only in those cases that are actually appealed).
So let’s dispense with the idea that “the deck is stacked against prosecutors.” It isn’t. Most of the time, they start a case with the jury’s sympathy. They’re usually better-funded and better-staffed, and they win far, far more often than they lose. I’m willing to entertain the argument that that’s because most of the people who get charged with crimes are in fact guilty of them. But “most” certainly isn’t “all.” And we’ve seen far too many exonerations over the last 10 years to think the system is working as well as it should be.