Patrick Proposes De-Privatizing Public Defense

The wild success of the criminal procedural on television has, if nothing else, led to an America very familiar with the Miranda warning:

You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you…

But what attorney? Currently in Massachusetts, 90 percent of court appointed legal cases are handled by some 3,000 private attorneys called bar advocates that work under contract with the state.

Gov. Deval Patrick wants to overhaul that system. He proposes eliminating the contract attorneys and hiring a permanent staff of 1,000 public defenders. He says it will save the state $45 million.

But Patrick’s proposal doesn’t just include hiring a bevy of lawyers. It involves eliminating the state’s Committee for Public Counsel Services, which currently sits in the judiciary, and creating a new Department of Public Counsel Services under his own executive branch.

That move, he says, will give him more authority to control costs. But it’s also raised a lot of questions. Chief among them, how much savings can actually be had. Bar advocates argue they are already saving the state money by paying for their own office space, health and malpractice insurance, and retirement plans.

Also at issue is the independence of public defenders. By moving the department under the executive branch, some worry indigent representation could be subject to political influence.


  • Jay Gonzalez, Massachusetts Secretary of Administration and Finance
  • David Carroll, research director for the nonprofit National Legal Aid and Defender Association
  • Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel, Committee for Public Counsel Services
  • Samuel Sutter, Bristol County District Attorney, president of the Massachusetts District Attorney’s Association

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