The Issue

The public defense system in the United States is a cornerstone of our democracy. It is meant to ensure that everyone accused of a crime gets a lawyer — even if they can’t afford one.

Under our Constitution, every person is innocent until proven guilty and deserves the chance to be properly defended in court. Unfortunately, this right to counsel is not ensured everywhere. States and even many individual counties have their own unique public defense systems, which struggle in unique ways to conduct their work. Fifty years after the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision, chronic underfunding and overwhelming caseloads for public defenders are putting this country at great risk of not fulfilling one of its most important promises: to provide quality representation to those in need.

The right to counsel enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution is unmet in many states across the country because the states don’t provide adequate funding,increasing the risk of wrongful convictions and costly appeals. Learn more by visiting The Constitution Project.

What Does Good Public Defense Look Like?

A good public defense system is one that fulfills its promise to provide good counsel to poor defendants — ensuring a fair trial for everyone. But to do their job well, public defenders need more support than they’re getting. The American Bar Association developed 10 Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System, which articulate the practices that need to be in place for public defense to be effective.

Public Defense Challenges

People who can’t afford a lawyer get neither a fair hearing nor a fair result because their Constitutional right to counsel is not protected. No one wins when cases are slow to come to court, plea deals are excessive and the results of trials are questioned after the fact.

In our courtrooms, public defenders are punching above their weight every day. Most public defenders carry caseloads at least double the American Bar Association’s recommended 150 felony cases per year, and public defenders simply do not receive the same resources as prosecutors for investigations, expert witnesses and other essentials of a complete and effective defense.

Further, the way that many jurisdictions fund public defense severely limits the amount of time that court-appointed lawyers can spend on any individual person’s case, no matter what the facts and evidence are. Public defenders are underpaid, overworked and fighting against the odds in order to provide the best defense they can.

Each state – and in many cases, each county – writes its own criminal code, creating a patchwork system that allows a misdemeanor in one jurisdiction to be classified as a felony offense in another.