General Law

The Sad State of the Public Defender in America


“In our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”
– Gideon v. Wainwright

In 1963, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that states are required to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants who can’t afford to hire an attorney. This ruling gave rise to the public defender: an attorney employed by the state to fulfill their obligations under the 14th Amendment.

Today, the guaranteed right to an attorney is a pillar of the American criminal justice system. The reality, however, is that the nation’s public defenders are overworked and underpaid. The result is a reduction in the quality of representation that calls into question whether or not the states are actually meeting their obligation.

Jarring Statistics

Public Defenders are Underpaid

The following statistic is representative of how underpaid public defenders are in America. The statistics show how in certain circumstances, a public defender would be eligible for representation by a public defender.


Public Defenders are Understaffed

The following graphic shows a snapshot of 17 states and the amount of public defenders employed, and how many are needed to support the caseload. Four states in the study (Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, and Wyoming) are fully staffed. That leaves the other 13 under-staffed, and by many accounts, grossly under-staffed.


Simply seeing the graphs though, does not paint the whole picture. We know that, depending on which jurisdiction, anywhere from 60-90% of all criminal defendants need publicly funded attorneys. And then when it is time to come in front of a judge, 90-95% of those people will enter a guilty plea. That is an incredibly high number and suggests many defendants are not receiving their constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.

But there are reasons this is happening. For instance, in a study by the Bureau of Justice, it was found that 40% of ALL public defender offices had not a single investigator on staff. Meaning if a defendant swore they were innocent and could prove it with a little detective work like interviewing witnesses, there would be nobody to do it. That defendant would be forced to plead.

How Many Hours do Public Defenders Really Work On a Case?

If you hired a lawyer, how many hours would you expect her to spend on your case? Forty hours? Twenty? Five? There is obviously no set answer since every case is unique. While there’s not a right or wrong answer to the maximum hours that ought to be put in to every case, there is a definitely an argument for an inappropriate minimum.

What if you were told that your criminal defense lawyer could only work on your case for 7 minutes? You would be outraged, and rightfully so.

Unfortunately, in New Orleans, that number isn’t so far-fetched. According to a study, the average public defender in New Orleans only has 7 minutes to work on a person’s case.

You read that correctly. 7. Whole. Minutes.

Now that isn’t to say that all states are this understaffed. However, it needs to be noted that many states are completely under-funded and over-worked.

Things have become so bad in places like Fresno, CA, that lawsuits are being filed by the ACLU against the County, claiming that the offices are so understaffed that they cannot provide effective representation. The lawsuit cites statistics estimating the typical misdemeanor public defense attorney in Fresno averages 1,462 cases per year. The recommended case load? No more than 400. That means that Fresno public defenders are taking on almost 4 times the recommended caseload, and still attempting to give effective representation for each person.


Unfortunately, there isn’t one catch-all solution to solve the public defense crisis in America. The best solution would be to raise funding for the system, and ensure enough public defenders are employed to match federal recommendations. However, as we know in America, cash-strapped states have trouble funding many programs. Your voice needs to be heard to allow more funding to go to the public defense system and help ensure . Here is a list of two groups working on solutions:
Gideon’s Promise
Sixth Amendment Center

Ready to Get Started?