Q: What is the difference between a private criminal defense attorney and a public defender and why does it matter?

A private criminal defense attorney is an attorney who is privately retained by a defendant facing criminal charges.  A private criminal defense attorney has the right to choose which cases he or she will defend. Because a private criminal defense attorney has the right to pick and choose his or her cases, privately retained criminal defense attorneys often have more time to devote to an individual case.  
A public defender, on the other hand, is an agent of the state.  They have gone to law school and are attorneys; however, they are employed by the government and are responsible for defending anyone who has been charged with a criminal offense and qualifies for a public defender.  To qualify for a public defender, a criminal defendant must be declared indigent by the court.  This means that the court must find that the defendant cannot afford to retain private counsel.  As a defendant, you do not get to choose your public defender nor do you have any say in his or her level of expertise in handling your specific charges.  Unlike the prosecutor who is generally assigned to handle a specific type of case, most public defenders do not specialize in a specific area of criminal defense, which means they may lack the same expertise as the prosecutor, who does specialize.  In addition, they have very little say over how many cases they may be required to take.  While many public defenders are great attorneys, sometimes they lack the time or expertise needed to devote to an individual case.  
The Sex Crimes Bureau at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office solely prosecutes crimes that are sexual in nature.  The prosecutors in that bureau receive specialized training which is mandated by the governor in order to allow them to prosecute sex crimes cases. The Maricopa County Public Defender’s Office does not have a specialized Sex Crimes Bureau.  This means that any attorney who works as a public defender may be assigned a sex crimes case as part of his or her general caseload, but does not guarantee that he or she has the same training and experience as the assigned prosecutor in your case.  A privately retained criminal defense attorney may or may not have the experience needed to defend a sex crimes case.  When shopping for a private criminal defense attorney, it’s important to ask about their qualifications in this specialized area of law.  

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