This Week's Report: “Public Defenders”

by Barbara Mantel, April 18, 2008

Do indigent defendants get adequate legal representation?

Over the years, several landmark Supreme Court decisions have established the right of an indigent defendant to the assistance of counsel at public expense. But today critics say the nation’s public defender system is in crisis. Roughly 80 to 85 percent of all criminal defendants in state courts, where most crimes are prosecuted, are indigent and represented by some kind of public counsel at an annual cost to states and counties of more than $3.5 billion. But many public defense lawyers and researchers argue that much more needs to be spent because funding for many indigent defense systems is “shamefully inadequate.” Excessive caseloads, high turnover of underpaid lawyers, poor training and supervision and judicial interference are also blamed for many of the deficiencies. According to one expert, in some poorly funded systems in the field, a single public defender handles 1,000 cases a year.

  • Do indigent defendants in criminal cases receive adequate representation?
  • Are public defense lawyers beholden to judges and politicians?
  • Should states rather than counties fund and supervise indigent-defense services?
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