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An Analysis of the Performance of Federal Indigent Defense Counsel


  • Radha Iyengar


The right to an equal and fair trial regardless of wealth is a hallmark of American jurisprudence. To ensure this right, the government pays attorneys to represent financially needy clients. In the U.S. federal court system, indigent defendants are represented by either public defenders who are salaried employees of the court or private attorneys, known as Criminal Justice Act (CJA) attorneys, who are compensated on an hourly basis. This study measures differences in performance of these types of attorneys and explores some potential causes for these differences. Exploiting the use of random case assignment between the two types of attorneys, an analysis of federal criminal case level data from 1997-2001 from 51 districts indicates that public defenders perform significantly better than CJA panel attorneys in terms of lower conviction rates and sentence lengths. An analysis of data from three districts linking attorney experience, wages, law school quality and average caseload suggests that these variables account for over half of the overall difference in performance. These systematic differences in performance disproportionately affect minority and immigrant communities and as such may constitute a civil rights violation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Suggested Citation

  • Radha Iyengar, 2007. "An Analysis of the Performance of Federal Indigent Defense Counsel," NBER Working Papers 13187, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:13187
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Marianne Bertrand & Esther Duflo & Sendhil Mullainathan, 2004. "How Much Should We Trust Differences-In-Differences Estimates?," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 119(1), pages 249-275.
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    Cited by:

    1. Leonardo Felli & Leeat Yariv & Allan Collard-Wexler & Mariagiovanna Baccara, 2010. "Gender and Racial Biases: Evidence from Child Adoption," 2010 Meeting Papers 273, Society for Economic Dynamics.
    2. Amanda Agan & Matthew Freedman & Emily Owens, 2017. "Is Your Lawyer a Lemon? Incentives and Selection in the Public Provision of Criminal Defense," Working Papers 613, Princeton University, Department of Economics, Industrial Relations Section..
    3. Holger Sieg & Yu Wang, 2017. "The Impact of Student Debt on Education, Career, and Marriage Choices of Female Lawyers," NBER Working Papers 23453, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • H4 - Public Economics - - Publicly Provided Goods
    • J3 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs
    • K4 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior

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