Program Goals/Program Components
Indigent defense involves the constitutionally mandated free representation of individuals accused of crimes who are unable to afford private representation. States, counties, and local jurisdictions utilized various methods to provide indigent defense to defendants who cannot afford a lawyer, including a public defender office, an assigned counsel system, or a contract system (Office of Justice Programs 2011). In Philadelphia, the indigent defense system relies on both public defenders and private counsel. Pennsylvania is the only state in which each county is solely responsible for funding indigent defense without any assistance from the state; therefore, the costs are backed by the city of Philadelphia (Anderson and Heaton 2013, 4).
Prior to 1993, the Defender Association of Philadelphia represented almost all indigent defendants accused of crime with the exception of those accused of murder. However, beginning on April 1, 1993, every fifth indigent murder case became sequentially assigned at the preliminary arraignment to be represented by attorneys from the Defender Association, while the other four cases are assigned to appointed counsel.
In Philadelphia, after a defendant is arrested for murder, they must receive a preliminary arraignment. At the arraignment, the court magistrate reviews information about the defendant compiled by the court’s pretrial unit in order to determine if the defendant can afford counsel. As a result of the change in 1993, if the defendant in a case with a murder charge is unlikely to be able to afford counsel, the magistrate appoints either the Defender Association or a to-be-determined appointed counsel to represent the defendant.
The Defender Association has a homicide unit, which consists of 10 experienced public defenders who have familiarity and understanding of practicing law in the Philadelphia court system. Every case is staffed by two lawyers, and one or more investigators and mitigation specialists as needed. All staff are salaried, and the unit has access to a limited set of funds to hire expert witnesses. All lawyers are full-time Assistant Defenders who are members of the Pennsylvania Bar and are not permitted to maintain a private practice or to participate in partisan political activity (Defender Association of Philadelphia 2013).
In contrast, defendants not represented by the Defender Association are assigned counsel by a judge from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. These attorneys are from private practices; however, in these cases, they function as a public defender, but are compensated differently. Specifically, for murder cases (both capital and non-capital cases), assigned counsel receive a flat fee for pretrial preparation, and are paid a stipulated amount each day if the case goes to trial.
18 to 100
Found Guilty of Any Charge
Anderson and Heaton (2013) found that although defendants randomly assigned to be represented by attorneys from the Defender Association of Philadelphia had a slightly lower overall guilty rate compared with defendants appointed to private counsel, the difference was not statistically significant.
Found Guilty of Murder
Defendants represented by Defender Association attorneys were 11 percentage points less likely to be convicted of murder compared with otherwise similar defendants represented by private counsel (a statistically significant difference).
Average Sentence Length
The average sentence length for defendants represented by the Defender Association was almost 2 years shorter when compared with otherwise similar defendants represented by private counsel (a statistically significant difference).
Expected Time Served
Defendants represented by the Defender Association were expected to spend more than 2.5 fewer years in prison compared with otherwise similar defendants represented by private counsel (a statistically significant difference).
Representation by the Defender Association reduced the probability of receiving a life sentence by 16 percentage points when compared to similar defendants represented by private counsel (a statistically significant difference).
Although representation by the Defender Association did not appear to impact the probability of receiving the death penalty when compared to similar defendants represented by private counsel, the data from which this conclusion was drawn is very small; therefore, confidence cannot be placed in this outcome.
The minimum sentence was reduced by more than 1 year for defendants represented by the Defender Association compared with otherwise similar defendants represented by private counsel (although the difference was not statistically significant).
The maximum sentence was reduced by more than 3 years for defendants represented by the Defender Association compared with otherwise similar defendants represented by private counsel (although the difference was not statistically significant).