The Best Defense Is No Offense: Preventing Crime through Effective Public Defense


To some, the staunch commitment of public defenders to protect due process rights of defendants puts them in the same camp as the American Civil Liberties Union-a group once denounced by an Attorney General of the United States as a “lobby” for criminals. The idea that public defenders are procriminal unfairly taints the image of public defenders and assigned counsel, making it harder for them to get a public hearing on the important values that they represent and the important function they perform. It erroneously implies that public defenders have aligned themselves with the criminal element of our society; further, it suggests that they care more about excusing crimes and keeping criminals free than they care about the welfare of victims and law abiding citizens. In short, it suggests that they are opposed to-rather than aligned with—community interests in producing a just and secure society. These claims are particularly damaging because, in order to be effective, public defender systems cannot rely only on their constitutional mandate. Public defender systems must, in addition, be able to secure political and financial support in the court of public opinion in order to survive and achieve their goals. Given that public defenders depend on public support, those who lead public defender agencies must assert both external and internal leadership when defining and articulating the public defender’s role. Anything less permits critics to distort the mission of public defenders, limit their authority, undermine their effectiveness, and vastly undervalue the contributions that they make to the overall quality of society. More specifically, those who lead public defender offices must convince the public that their offices are producing results that are, or should be, valued by citizens. That is why the charge that public defenders are pro-criminal and act to increase crime is so damaging. If public defenders are perceived as pro-criminal, and if the operations of public defender agencies are perceived as increasing society’s vulnerability to crime, the public will see no reason to support their activities.

Suggested Reading