Friday, March 14, 2008

The cost of indigent defense vs. the cost of prosecutions

With all the hubbub about the cost of providing poor people accused of crimes an attorney, I decided to compare that cost with the cost of prosecutions.

People are far less likely to complain about the cost of prosecution, it seems, for fairly obvious reasons. I figured it'd be easy. You take two numbers: The total budget for indigent defense and the total number of cases, and divide. Do the same for prosecution and your done.

Three months, and really quite a bit of math later, it ain't so simple. Bottom line, I came up with a range:
The average prosecution costs $602 to $683 per case

The average indigent defense costs $607 to $639 per case

I can explain how I arrived at these figures if you like. It all depends whether you back out the cost of running grand juries and victim witness notification, or if you divide by the number of cases or the number of defendants in those cases, etc.

But it's kind of a long-winded explanation, so, for the moment, trust me. And if you want my best guess on which is the most fair number to use for comparison, I'd put the average prosecution at about $635 and the average indigent defense at about $615.

A few other interesting things:
The Macon Judicial Circuit district attorney had 6,386 active cases in FY 2007.

The Macon Judicial Circuit Public Defender had 4,697.

That includes the death penalty cases, which are actually handled and funded out of a separate office in Atlanta for the public defender, which I will discuss in a moment. And obviously the DA handles other cases the public defender doesn't, because some people hire their own attorney.

But look how close the actual case numbers are. There are either a lot of poor people getting arrested, or we're not doing a good enough job making sure non-indigent people pay for their own lawyers.

Of course, there's another caveat: One case for the prosecution can be several for the defense, because each defendant needs their own lawyer. Sometimes three guys charged with an armed robbery will testify against each other.

As for death penalty cases, the Brian Nichols trial in Atlanta has shown that these cases lead to large costs for the system. For the Macon circuit, the cost of running 6 death penalty cases in 2007 was an estimated $389,000. That's an estimate based on the average cost of defending an indigent death penalty case across the state, but the point is this:
The Macon circuit's public defender costs, if you add in the estimated death penalty costs actually born by the state Capitol Defender's Office, is just over $3 million.

Death penalty case costs make up about 13 percent of that cost, but .001 percent of the cases.

Finally, here in Macon, prosecution costs are higher mostly because of salary differences. The DA has been in business a long time, and has a lot of 20-year-plus veterans who are maxed out on salary. The public defender's office was created in 2005.
The DA's office has 54 employees, with an average salary of $57,121. Its 20 attorneys make an average of $84,866.

The public defender's office has 30 employees with an average salary of about $47,900. Its 17 attorney's make an average of about $56,500.

Those numbers are based on figures provided by the two offices. I backed out the salaries of the district attorney himself (Howards Simms) and the public defender himself (Lee Robinson).

What does all this mean? Depends on who you ask. Several people told me this comparison was a waste of my time. Seems to me, though, if you're trying to figure out how much to spend on indigent defense, you'd want to know how much you're spending on prosecutions.

Many thanks the District Attorney's Office and Public Defender's Office for their help and patience on this. And I'll close with comments from them, and from state Sen. Preston Smith, who has been the leading legislative advocate for reform of the indigent defense system:
DA Simms: The average costs need "to be close. But I don't necessarily think it needs to be one-to-one."

Pub. Def. Robinson: "Fundamental fairness says the scales of justice should be balanced. And if you're spending more money to prosecute than to defend, then clearly the scales are not balanced."

State Sen. Smith: "I don't know where that presupposition comes from — that they are linked together in costs. The strategies are very different. And the costs of those strategies are very different."


griftdrift said...

I assume with the relatively small numbers here you included cases which were pled out before trial? I wonder what the numbers would be if you used only those who went all the way to a verdict. Probably take another three months.

Lucid Idiocy said...

I asked them for all the cases, so it should include those that pled out. But it doesn't include cases where the public defender's office did, in the public defender's words, did "almost no work."

That basically means the cases where the public defender's office met with someone, but they ended up getting their own lawyer.

Amy Morton said...

Preston Smith was a prosecutor and now works for a firm, that, near as I can tell, does mostly estate and property work. I wonder how many criminal cases he has defended? I'm betting on a low number. I just saying, I don't exactly think he has a balanced view of the situation. Try asking someone like Laura Hogue, who has done both sides to comment on the difference in cost to the defense and the prosecution.

Nick said...

Good stuff Travis. It is sad that someone would have the view that the costs shouldn't be balanced. For all the complaining about the Nichols situation, from my understanding this could have been avoided if he had been allowed to serve life without parole (not trying to make a death penalty argument, but one of costs).

As for Preston Smith take what he says with a grain of salt. Amy is correct he does not have a balanced view of the situation. I used to live in his state Senate District and he did estate and property work, not criminal defense.