In Travis county, the seat of Austin Texas, mental health courts manage a large case load of defendants with a mental illness. For those unable to afford their own defense, either a public defender or a private indigent defense attorney are appointed by the court.
Public defenders are assigned defendants with lower functioning, and as a result, the county allocates two social workers for every one public defender.
Private indigent defense attorneys, on the other hand, are paid a nominal fixed fee of $750 which is insufficient to hire a social worker. We estimate the causal effect of public defense on repeat offending and suicidality using a leniency design in which randomized assignment of pre-trial clinicians is an instrument for lawyer assignment.
While we find no differences in repeat offending between public and private attorney defendants, we do find that public defenders reduce suicide attempts by 14% conditional on returning to jail compared to that of private indigent defense attorney.