Poor Defendants Should Get to Choose Their Lawyers Too

Americans may take for granted that if they’re ever accused of a crime, they can choose their own attorney to represent them. The Supreme Court has ruled that Americans have a right to counsel in serious criminal cases, and nobody seriously argues that the government should make that important decision for us.  

Yet that is exactly what happens across the country when defendants are too poor to hire their own attorneys.  While other countries such as the United Kingdom have long allowed indigent defendants to choose their own lawyers, American jurisdictions historically restrict that choice to either a court-appointed lawyer or an assigned public defender. 

In 2010, the Cato Institute published a study, Reforming Indigent Defense, which proposed a client choice model where poor persons accused of crimes would be able to choose their own attorney to represent them in court. If the accused opted for the public defender, he could make that choice, but if he wanted to explore other options, he could do that also.  The Texas Indigent Defense Commission became aware of the Cato report and decided to give it a try with a pilot program in Comal County, near San Antonio. The program went into operation in 2015.  

Today, the Justice Management Institute released an evaluation based on two years of data from the Comal Client Choice program.  The report, called The Power of Choice: The Implications of a System Where Indigent Defendants Choose Their Own Counsel, suggests that the program is working as well or better than the old system across a variety of metrics.  

The JMI study looks at four factors to assess the viability of the Comal program:

  • Does the model impact the quality of representation?  
  • Does the model produce a higher level of satisfaction and procedural justice?
  • Does the model impact case outcomes?
  • What is the impact of the model on overall cost and efficiency?

The study compares the results of Client Choice participants with the representations of defendants who chose to use the pre-existing court-appointment system.

While some aspects of representation were the same for both groups (for instance, client assessments of how hard their lawyers worked were not statistically distinguishable), participants in the Client Choice program were able to meet with their lawyers more quickly, had a stronger sense of fairness, and were more likely to either plead to lesser charges or exercise their right to trial than their peers.  The report also finds that the Client Choice program did not increase costs in the system.

Perhaps as important as any objective metric, a majority of defendants who were offered the ability to choose their own attorney opted to do so, suggesting that giving indigent defendants some agency in their choice of representation has a value in itself.  Freedom of choice matters to people.  

In too many jurisdictions, indigent criminal defense is in a state of crisis. Texas is in the vanguard with its Client Choice program. Hopefully these promising results will encourage more jurisdictions to consider injecting choice and market principles into their indigent defense systems.