September 1, 2010 2:29PM

Reforming Indigent Defense

We know that most of the people arrested and prosecuted in our criminal courts are indigent. We also know that indigent legal representation is scandalous in many places around the country. What to do? The conventional remedy to this problem has been a plea to spend more money on our overburdened public defender organizations. However, a new Cato paper takes a fresh look at this subject and proposes an entirely new model for the delivery of indigent legal services — defense vouchers that will empower defendants to choose their own attorneys. Authors Stephen Schulhofer and David Friedman explain how such a system could be implemented and why it can be expected to provide an effective cure for the major ills of indigent defense organization.

From the Executive Summary:

The uniform refusal of American jurisdictions to allow freedom of choice in indigent defense creates the conditions for a double disaster. In violation of free‐​market principles that are honored almost everywhere else, the person who has the most at stake is allowed no say in choosing the professional who will provide him one of the most important services he will ever need. The situation is comparable to what would occur if senior citizens suffering from serious illness could receive treatment under Medicare only if they accepted a particular doctor designated by a government bureaucrat. In fact, the situation of the indigent defendant is far worse, because the government’s refusal to honor the defendant’s own preferences is compounded by an acute conflict of interest: the official who selects his defense attorney is tied, directly or indirectly, to the same authority that is seeking to convict the defendant.

Check it out.