NACDL Report Highlights Failings of Indigent Defense System; Let’s Try a Freer Market

A new report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers highlights the myriad inadequacies in the current system of federal indigent defense. 

NACDL identifies “Seven Fundamentals of a Robust Federal Indigent Defense System,” including a system insulated from judicial interference, adequate funding, sufficient training and expertise among indigent defense lawyers, and greater transparency, and finds each of them to be lacking under current circumstances.

The nuts and bolts of how the current system fails to adhere to those fundamentals can be found in the full report here.

Notably, one reform that is entirely absent from the report is the introduction of client choice and free market competition into the indigent defense system. 

As the NACDL report itself notes:

Short of warfare, there is no more awesome use of governmental power than the power to prosecute.  A criminal prosecution can result in life-altering consequences, including the loss of reputation, property, liberty, and even life itself.  For this reason, the founders of this nation recognized that no person should stand alone against a criminal prosecution.

Given the stakes, it seems bizarre that those individuals who have the entire weight of the state brought to bear against their liberty should depend on that very same state to choose the person to represent them.  It’s certainly true that public defenders tend to be undercompensated and buried under incomprehensible caseloads; but it’s just as true that a public defender system fails to respect the agency of the people who have the most at stake.

The introduction of defense vouchers, which would allow indigent defendants to choose their own lawyers rather than have that all-important decision made at random by a judge or public defender, was the subject of a Cato Policy Analysis in 2010 by David Friedman and Stephen Schulhofer. It would allow defendants a say in their representation and force lawyers to compete to serve them. In doing so, it would come closer to ensuring those fundamental principles of indigent defense than any entirely government-run system is likely to.

The voucher idea is not just a theory; a version of it has now been implemented in Comal County, Texas, which you can read about in more detail here.

When the government takes the immense step of putting someone’s life or liberty in jeopardy, why shouldn’t that person have at least some choice in who will defend them?