If you or a loved one has recently been charged with a crime that may take you to the courtroom, you are likely scared and anxious to find someone to represent your case. If you are wondering whether to choose a Public Defender or private criminal defense lawyer to defend you, you’re in the right place. 

What representation you choose for your defense is the most important decision you are going to make and can be the difference between you walking away with your freedom or suffering a huge fine or significant jail time. It’s time to choose someone to fight in your corner to ensure that doesn’t happen. 

This article outlines everything you need to know to make your decision. Before we start weighing the pros and cons, let’s take a moment to check we are all on the same page about what Public Defenders in Missouri actually do. 

The Public Defender System in Missouri 

In Missouri, the Missouri State Public Defender (MSPD) provides legal representation to all accused citizens, as per the constitutional requirement. Any citizen accused or convicted of crimes in Missouri at the level of the State Trial Court, Appellate Court, Missouri Supreme Court, or US States Supreme Court has the right to a Public Defender. 

The MSPD “attempts to provide every client with a high-quality, competent, ardent defense team at every stage of the process”. However, since the MSPD expanded statewide in 1989, they have undergone over ten independent evaluations which warned state officials that the MSPD was making constitutional violations. 

These warnings were ignored until the right to counsel became a constitutional crisis in Missouri. The MSPD is notoriously understaffed, overworked, and underfunded. MSPD is one of the least funded public defender systems in the whole of the US. 

Myths and Misconceptions about Public Defenders 

There are many misconceptions about Public Defenders what they do, and what they are able to offer. Here are some truths you need to be aware of:  

  • Public Defenders aren’t free – they will seek repayment for the costs incurred while representing you, in most cases. They won’t require payment upfront, but you will have to pay their fees. 
  • Public Defenders care – when they can. Yes, they get paid either way, but they are often so overloaded with cases that the first time they meet you is in the courtroom. Without that personal connection, it may feel as though they don’t care about the outcome. 
  • Many Public Defenders are good at what they do – given the limited resources they have. They have completed the same qualifications as private attorneys and are likely getting experience until they can move on to private practice. 
  • Public Defenders aren’t out to get you – they don’t have a secret agenda and they aren’t conspiring with the state to make sure you get a terrible sentence. They will do their best for you with what they have. 

How to Qualify for Public Defender Assistance 

If you need Public Defender representation, one isn’t automatically assigned to your case if you don’t find a criminal lawyer of your own (in that case, you will have a court-appointed attorney). To acquire public representation, you need to complete a written application at your local MSPD office serving the county in which your charges are pending. You can find links to the application and a list of offices here.

You should be aware that the Public Defender won’t represent all cases. The cases it absolutely will not handle, are: 

  • Civil cases involving money damages 
  • Landlord-tenant cases 
  • Immigration and deportation cases 
  • Divorces 
  • Child custody cases 
  • Municipal court cases 

Are Public Defenders Overworked in Missouri? 

In short, yes. There are approximately 112,000 cases for the MSPD to handle at any one time and only 370 lawyers. That means each lawyer is juggling around three hundred cases at any one time. 

As you will have read in the first section, the MSPD is one of the least funded public defender offices in the whole of the states. They simply don’t have the funding to acquire the resources necessary to offer their clients a good quality of representation. 

The American Bar Association (those that set the notorious Bar examination for attorneys) has a minimum requirement for how long lawyers should spend on each case to ensure their clients have adequate and ethical representation, but only 3% of cases in Missouri represented by Missouri public defenders meet this requirement for the constitutional requirement. In other words, 97% of clients are getting unlawful representation.

Missouri public defenders rarely get to meet with their clients before the trial, meaning both the client and the public defender walks into the courtroom completely unprepared to defend their case. They don’t have a chance to discuss the circumstances from the client’s point of view, witnesses, evidence, any plea negotiations that could have taken place before the trial, or a strategy for in the room – all things they should have a right to and any private attorney will offer. 

Pros and Cons: Public vs Private Attorneys 

Public vs Private Success Statistics 

In a study by the University of Dayton, it was found that there is no significant relationship between having a Public Defender represent you and the outcome of your trial. However, if you have your counsel appointed for you, you are 14% more likely to be convicted than if you have private counsel, with public defenders falling in between the two. 

Public vs Private Costs 

The pro most people know about public defenders is that they are the cheaper option – but it’s important to remember they are not free. If they accept your application, they will let you know how much their representation will cost and how you can repay them. They will come up with this figure by looking at a chart called the Fee Schedule, which you can see here. The fees are relatively minimal, starting at $125 for misdemeanors and probation violations, and go up to $1,500 for a capital murder case. 

A con of choosing private representation is that, obviously, it’s going to cost you significantly more. However, it’s likely not as expensive as you may imagine to hire a good attorney for a small and straightforward case. The national average for private representation ranges from $2,000 to $4,500, depending on the case and experience of the lawyer. If you are someone who has a number of charges or convictions and you are facing prison time your fees will be higher due to the complexity of the case, but its’ also important to remember what those fees are going to get you. They are likely the difference between your freedom and having your liberty stripped from you. When it comes to criminal representation, you really do get what you pay for. 

Public vs Private Workload 

A major con of choosing a Public Defender over a private attorney of your choosing is their workload. As already, discussed, Public Defenders have a huge number of cases to manage, and they simply don’t have the time to give you the personal attention and reassurances you need. 

Private attorneys work for you. When you choose a private criminal defense lawyer, you have the chance to meet with them before they represent you and ask them as many questions as you need to know whether or not they are the right attorney for you. 

When Does It Make Sense to Use a Public Defender?

If you are on a very limited budget, it is your first offense, it is a minor crime, and you are certain of the outcome already and don’t wish to fight it, then a Public Defender may be the right option for you. 

When Doesn’t It Make Sense to Use a Public Defender?

In any other situation from (and including) the one above. If you can find a way to afford a private attorney, it really is the best solution. They will be your advocate throughout your case and will fight for your freedom. If a private lawyer is known to lose a lot of cases, they simply won’t have clients. The success of their business relies on the success of their cases and the happy words of past clients. Many private criminal defense lawyers offer their clients 24/7 access so should something change in their case, they’ll be there to defend you at any time of night or day. 

Don’t Risk It 

If you can find the money to afford a private attorney, you should. It simply isn’t worth the risk of choosing a Public Defender over finding a public criminal defense attorney who you click with and who will be your advocate every step of the way. While all public defenders have the best of intentions, they are overworked human beings. Like all of us, when they are tired their quality of work starts to suffer, and you don’t want that work to be your future. 

Don’t leave whether or not you walk away from your case with your freedom to chance. If you’re looking for a private criminal defense lawyer in St. Louis and surrounding areas, who will prioritize your case and has hundreds of successful cases and happy clients behind them, Combs Law Group may be the perfect fit. 

We offer completely free consultations to talk you through your case and our process, and we get back to most initial inquiries within just two hours, so if you’re feeling anxious and need someone to talk to as soon as possible, take a deep breath and click here to contact us now.

About Chris Combs

A St. Louis native and graduate of Saint Louis University Law School, Chris Combs has been recognized as one of St. Louis' top criminal defense and personal injury attorneys. He is passionate about getting positive results for all his clients and values personal communication above all.

Learn More


Truck Accident Claim


2nd Degree Murder


Wrongful Death of a Child


Truck Accident Claim


2nd Degree Murder


Wrongful Death of a Child

View All Results