The pros to this option are mostly straightforward. You can choose who the attorney is, and that choice can be made after getting recommendations from friends, lawyer review websites (for example, AVVO is a good place to start). Your attorney may be more experienced than a public defender and may have a (somewhat!) lighter caseload, thus allowing him or her to pay more attention to the issues that come up in your case.
The cons to this option are equally straightforward. In fact, that should likely be “con” in the singular, since the primary downside is cost: obviously, unlike with the public defender, you’ll have to pay for your own attorney. This may include both a retainer as well as further hourly fees. However, a criminal attorney may not be as expensive as you may think, so it’s well worth calling around to check rates before you assume you can’t afford one.
If you truly can’t afford to hire a private attorney, the public defender is another option. Whether you can or can’t afford your own attorney is a determination that will generally be made by a judge when you appear in court. The determination will involve a calculation of how much income and assets you have verses expenses such as housing costs and support of dependents.
Note that it’s also possible to have a public defender appointed to represent you before you ever appear in court. If, for example, you are being interrogated by the police and wish to have an attorney present, you can be represented by a public defender at this point if you are financially eligible.
One positive aspect of public defender representation is, of course, the lack of cost. Another is that you may be able to be represented by what’s called a Public Defense Corporation, a group designed to protect the interests of certain segments of the population, such as Native Americans or others of minority ethnic heritage. The primary downside to this option is that there are many public defenders and you are not given the choice of which one represents you.
Although you have a constitutional right to an attorney, you can waive this right and represent yourself in a criminal prosecution. If you do so, it’s called acting pro se, i.e., on your own behalf. In order to effectively waive your right to an attorney, a court will first have to determine whether you knew all of the relevant facts regarding the waiver of that right and whether the waiver was made voluntarily. A defendant may choose this option if they are at odds with their attorney on issues such as how to present a defense, what evidence to present, or which witnesses to call. If you do decide to represent yourself, be aware that the court will not “take it easy on you” simply because you do not have an attorney. Pro se defendants are generally held to the same standard as licensed attorneys, and the court will not help you make your argument, suggest objections, or otherwise help you make your case.