What is a Public Defender?

Public defenders are lawyers who represent indigent defendants in criminal proceedings and are compensated by the government for their work. Although there had been private organizations like New York’s Legal Aid Society (founded in 1876) performing this task with public and private funding sources, the first government agency public defender’s office was created in Los Angeles in 1914. Soon, most large cities had similar offices, or private programs that would provide pro bono representation to poor defendants, particularly immigrants, accused of serious crimes. For the next fifty years, the United States Supreme Court addressed a line of cases involving the constitutional right to counsel; and in 1963, the Court eventually established a right to counsel in virtually all aspects of state criminal proceedings. As a result, states began creating legal defense delivery systems to ensure that qualified defendants were represented in court.

Today, there are an estimated 15,000 attorneys that work as public defenders in the United States. In all but one state, a public defender’s office provides no cost – or low cost – legal representation to indigent defendants in some, or all types of criminal proceedings. The only exception is Maine, which employs court-appointed attorneys. Currently, 22 states operate a state-wide public defender’s office, while the remaining 27 states provide services through county-based offices. In California, there are public defender’s offices in 26 of the 58 counties.

As states across the country wrestle with budget cuts and financial difficulties, many public defender’s offices are faced with unprecedented caseloads, low staff morale, and legitimate concerns that defendants are not receiving adequate legal representation.

Due to an alarming increase in case loads, and fewer resources, courts across the country have been stepping in to impose limits on caseloads of public defenders. Most recently, in Washington, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that beginning in September 2013, public defenders may not handle more than 400 misdemeanor cases or 150 felony cases per year. These limits are an effort to ensure that attorneys have sufficient time to spend on each case and ensure that their clients’ constitutional right to an attorney is not violated. In the past, public defenders in Washington have handled as many as 1,000 misdemeanor cases each year. The American Bar Association (ABA) recommends caseloads of no more than 150 felony cases per attorney.

The state supreme courts of New York, Florida, and Michigan are currently considering imposing limits on the number of cases the public defender’s office may handle; and also are considering whether or not the offices are able to provide adequate legal representation in light of the increasing case loads.

The ABA has guidelines for public defenders on what is considered adequate legal representation that include:

  • when caseloads are high, the public defense program should consist of both a defense office and the private bar
  • workloads are controlled and permit the delivery of quality representation
  • the attorney’s ability, training, and experience are sufficiently matched to the complexity of the case.

As states continue to cut costs, it seems apparent that many government offices, including the public defender’s offices will be forced to reduce staff, increase workloads, and eliminate services. As a result, courts have no choice but to intervene and try to ensure that indigent criminal defendants are provided adequate legal representation.