Defendants charged with crimes are almost always best served by obtaining a lawyer. In fact, most criminal defendants are represented by a lawyer, especially when jail or a prison sentence is a possible result. It is very difficult for a person to competently handle his or her own criminal case. While there are no firm statistics on how many people choose to represent themselves in criminal cases, estimates range well below 1%.
Self-representation is made difficult in part by the typical gulf between paper and practice in criminal cases. In books you can find laws that define crimes, fix punishments for their violation, and mandate courtroom procedures. Take the time and trouble to read these books, defendants might think, and they’ll understand the system. Alas, the practice of criminal law can’t be understood by reading books alone, even this one. To experienced criminal defense attorneys, the criminal law appears much the same as a droplet of water appears to a biologist under a microscope—a teeming world with life forms and molecules interacting unpredictably.
For example, prosecutorial discretion—the power of prosecutors to decide whether to file criminal charges, and what charges to file— determines much of what actually happens in the criminal courts. The particular prosecutor who has the power to make decisions, and when those decisions are made, can greatly affect the outcome of a case. An act that looks on paper to constitute one specific crime can be recast as a variety of other crimes, some more and others less serious. What in a statute book appears to be a fixed sentence for a particular crime can be negotiated into a variety of alternatives.
No one should underestimate the role that community pressures, values, and politics plays in many criminal cases. Judges must stand for re-election, prosecutors want to be successful, and police expect that the crime reports they bring to the prosecutor will result in charged cases. The public may be fired up about certain crimes and expect the system to "get tough" on people arrested for them. In a perfect world, the system would be immune from such pressures, but this is simply not what happens. Only someone who's familiar with the local scene can know how these pressures might affect your case, and how to work within them.
In other words, the world of criminal law is vast, hidden, and shifting, and defendants enter it alone at their peril.
The truth is, no matter how smart or well educated you are, the criminal justice system makes it virtually impossible to do a competent job of representing yourself. Each criminal case is unique, and only a specialist who is experienced in assessing the particulars of a case—and in dealing with the many variables that come up in every case—can provide the type of representation that every criminal defendant needs to receive if justice is to be done.
Criminal defense lawyers do much more than simply question witnesses in court. For example, defense lawyers:
This article was excerpted from The Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman, J.D., and Sara J. Berman, J.D.