Public Defenders

The Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright considered whether the Sixth Amendment’s right to an attorney applied to state courts. In court, Gideon did not receive counsel and had to represent himself because he could not afford an attorney. The Supreme Court decided

“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.”

That decision was in 1963, but even now people who cannot afford an attorney are not equally represented in court.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 60-90% of criminal defenders need public attorneys. These public defenders represent people who cannot afford to hire an attorney. Public defenders have to handle much larger caseloads than private lawyers, which prevent them from providing effective representation to all of their clients. Most states have guidelines that restrict the number of criminal cases that a public defender can work on. However, these restrictions are frequently bypassed and public defenders are given more cases than state guidelines allow. According to a NY Times article, public defenders have to practice triage in order to handle these heavy caseloads. They do this by prioritizing their limited resources into higher-level cases such as murder while lower-level cases do not receive as much attention.

A study conducted in the Missouri State Public Defender System found that defenders spent an average of nine hours to prepare their cases on serious felonies and two hours for misdemeanors. This is much less than the 47 hours called for felonies and 12 hours for misdemeanors.

How can we claim that we allow everyone a fair trial if people represented by public attorneys statistically receive less protection? Even today, the right to a lawyer heavily favors people who can afford an attorney over people who cannot. What do you think about this issue?


2 thoughts on “Public Defenders”

  1. I did not know the average preparation time for these cases was so vast. I have to agree with your perspective, it isn’t a perfect system and it is incredibly run and controlled by the rich man. The points you make since the decision of Gideon v. Wainwright to the current studies you recall show the incredible lack of concern for an equal trial. However, I find myself pondering in what possible way can that be fixed? It is more likely that those who are of lower socio-economic status and less fit (According to Darwinism) to commit the most crimes, and those of higher status are less likely to commit crimes and more likely to get out of them. Yes I agree equality as defined by our legislations is far from attainment, and maybe some evident change is necessary. Question is in what way?


  2. Thanks for your comment! I think the main problem with the current public defender system is that there are too few lawyers to handle the amount of cases received. One possible solution to this problem is to increase the number of public defenders. This can be done by increasing the amount of money put into legal services for defendants. Adding more money allows the state legislatures to hire more public defenders. This would directly decrease the caseload of each public defender and lead to more effective protection. Because many states have tight budgets, state legislatures would have to adjust priorities in order to put more money into public defender offices.
    A second solution is to decrease the amount of cases by cutting down recidivism rates (amount of people who return to criminal behavior after punishment). Programs introduced within the prison system that provide convicts with vocational skills and ways to reintegrate back into society can help reduce recidivism. If more of these programs are implemented, then the amount of repeat offenders that increase the number of cases may decline.


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