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Make or Buy? The Provision of Indigent Defense Services in the U.S

42 Pages Posted: 2 Aug 2016 Last revised: 14 May 2017

Yotam Shem-Tov

UC Berkeley

Date Written: April 17, 2017


To provide essential, constitutionally mandated legal services for defendants without financial means, US courts employ indigent defense systems composed of private court-appointed attorneys and public defenders’ organizations. I investigate the public defender’s causal effect on defendant sentencing outcomes relative to private court-appointed attorneys using a new “twins design” identification strategy. I argue and show empirically that in multiple defendant cases the decision of who is assigned to the public defender organization in jurisdiction X, a large urban locality, can be treated as close to a randomized experiment, which can be utilized to measure the effectiveness of court-appointed private attorneys relative to public defenders. I find that public defenders out-perform court-appointed attorneys in a range of sentencing outcomes. Employing a similar identification strategy in federal courts finds that public defenders perform at least as well if not better then court-appointed attorneys in multiple defendant cases. I provide strong evidence of selection in the assignment of attorney types to defendants in both jurisdiction X and federal courts, which makes a naıve comparison invalid and misleading.

Keywords: Indegent Defense, Criminal Justice, Crime

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Shem-Tov, Yotam, Make or Buy? The Provision of Indigent Defense Services in the U.S (April 17, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Yotam Shem-Tov (Contact Author)

UC Berkeley ( email )

Berkeley, CA
United States
5102804648 (Phone)
5102804648 (Fax)

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