A criminal lawyer specializes in defending clients who have been charged with a crime. According to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to a criminal defense. Because so many people who are charged with a crime cannot afford to pay for legal representation, most legal jurisdictions employ criminal defense lawyers known as public defenders. Some jurisdictions use a rotation of private lawyers or firms instead. These lawyers are offered free of charge to the accused for their legal defense.
Public defenders are publically funded. However, they are run by independent agencies and make their own decisions as to which cases to handle. Not all of the lawyers are employed by the state, as some states use both staff attorneys as well as appointed private attorneys to handle their growing caseload.
Private criminal attorney fees are astronomical. Most charge by the hour, although there are some specialized lawyers who charge a flat fee for certain cases depending on the circumstances. Hourly rates can be as high as high as $300 an hour and. Some cases, like DUI/DWI cases, can be quite complex and cost up to $25,000 to defend. Some criminal lawyers charge up from retainer fees of $10,000 for felonies and $50,000 for more egregious charges like rape or homicide.
Provisions for a public criminal lawyer are usually made at the arraignment hearing. This is usually the accuseds first opportunity to go before a judge. One of the first questions the judge will ask is if the accused can afford legal representation. If you say no, then there is usually a public defender in the court room at the time who will step up to take the case and argue on your behalf. This lawyer is not typically the one who will ultimately be assigned to your case. Most courts will investigate your financial status to make sure you really cannot afford a lawyer before assigning a public defender to your case.
Before you can be represented by a public criminal lawyer information will need to be provided to the court. The court will consider your earnings, assets, the seriousness of the allegation, and the likely length of the trial in determining your eligibility for assistance. People who earn a decent living can still qualify for court appointed representation if the charges you are facing are serious and the court determines that the trial will last a long time.
Some people earn enough to not qualify for assistance, but not enough to truly be able to pay for a lawyer without suffering undue hardship. In these cases, the court can make a finding of partial indigency. They will appoint a lawyer, but you will be responsible for reimbursing the state for part of the cost of your legal representation.
Some people charged with crimes are not comfortable with a public criminal lawyer because they are not confident in the quality of the lawyers that are appointed. First, it is important to note that it is better to be represented by someone than to try to represent yourself. Legal proceedings have rules that the general public are not familiar with, but that lawyers deal with every day. Second, public defenders can be some of the best young legal minds in any jurisdiction. They receive ample experience defending cases, much more that some expensive private attorneys with twice as much legal experience. They are especially experienced in courtroom procedures, and throughout history have proven to be very capable of taking on some of the most prestigious prosecutors. To the extent that public defenders have received a bad reputation, that reputation is underserved.