A recent article by CBS News titled "Unequal justice under the law" came to this conclusion: "Does our criminal justice system truly guarantee JUSTICE FOR ALL? Not if you don't have the money to hire your own top-notch attorney, it doesn't."
You can read the whole article here: CBS News
Prior to the mid-1960's a person who was arrested and charged with a criminal offense had no right to legal counsel. At that time, an accused person could either hire their own attorney to defend them, or could represent themselves in their case. This all changed when the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Clarence Earl Gideon. In the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), the court ordered that any person too poor to hire a lawyer must be provided legal counsel by court.
While this was a huge change, the court did not set standards on how many cases a public defender could handle, or what resources they would be given. For this reason, many governments and courts have shortchanged the public defense system, as well as the clients they represent. There are excellent attorneys who either work in the public defense system, or would like to work in the public defense system, but those attorneys are often overburdened with enormous caseloads, as well as limited resources to represent their clients. Prosecutors are almost always more highly compensated, and have better office resources then their public defender counterparts.
There are also huge differences in public defender offices. Some employ career employees who do their best with the limited resources they are given. Others hire brand new attorneys with no criminal defense experience, and pay them so poorly that they leave for other jobs before they ever gain experience. These public defenders may never go to trial, interview a witness, or hire an investigator. Some don't even meet with their clients except at court proceedings, never going over police reports or asking what happened in the case.
It is a good thing that those who are too poor to afford a lawyer have the option of some representation through a public defender, it is a shame however that those that use a public defender are often at a disadvantage to those that hire a great private attorney.