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With the transition to democracy, Latin American countries have embarked on implementing judicial reforms to redesign justice-sector institutions and build up the rule of law in the region. Reform efforts included empowe¬ring the courts, granting political independence to the public prosecutor’s office, professionalizing the public defender offices and implementing the accusatory criminal system in justice-sector institutions. To what extent are the reforms tar¬geted at the public defender offices changing the way legal defense is provided? In this article, after discussing a theoretical framework that captures and opera¬tionalizes the concepts of a merit-based career system, an accusatory criminal justice system and effective legal representation, I examine the extent to which the changes of transitioning from an inquisitorial to an adversarial system and from a non-merit-based career system to a merit-based career system have affec¬ted the way legal counsel is provided at subnational public defender offices. To accomplish this, I provide both a de jure and de facto measures (indicators of reform implementation). To identify the de jure indicators, I consulted legal texts (constitutions and secondary laws), and to gauge how the de facto indi¬cators work, I relied on interviews with public defenders, reports and academic documents. I collected 50 interviews with public defense attorneys from three Mexican states: Baja California Sur, Jalisco and Nuevo León. Findings from these states suggest that as reform implementation advances, public defenders have more tools to offer legal representation; more specifically, they are better trained, in addition to having higher salaries, a lower caseload per defender and increased access to forensic services.
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