If you’re accused of a crime in America and can’t afford a defense attorney, the court will appoint one. Legal counsel is a right guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
Court-appointed attorneys are called public defenders, and they represent clients who cannot pay for private counsel and are at risk of losing their liberty if convicted.
It’s not unusual for a public defender to juggle a large caseload. In 2013, such attorneys each closed caseloads ranging in number from 50 to 590, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, under the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We hold bar licenses just like any private attorney does. We just happened to choose careers in public service, and we just happen to practice law in that arena,” says Rosalie Joy, of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, who for 29 years served as a public defender in Atlanta.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution established the right to counsel for criminal defendants facing federal prosecution. Subsequent landmark decisions in the Supreme Court extended that right to all criminal prosecutions, state or federal, felony or misdemeanor, that carry a sentence of imprisonment.
Governments pay for the service in different ways. Some states use unified public defender systems where the state pays. Others leave payment up to the county or city. Georgia does a combination of both and uses court fines and fees to help offset the expense, Joy says. In the District of Columbia (Washington), congressional appropriations pay public defenders.
Laura Hankins, general counsel for the Public Defender Service, an organization that provides legal representation for indigent children and adults facing imprisonment in Washington, says public defenders have always been relevant because, in her experience, these defendants are often “overcharged” (given too many charges or a charge that is too severe) or falsely charged.
As an attorney, Hankins works to find more evidence about the alleged crime. She says she wants “to see what really happened — to beat the charge or have a lesser charge.”
She tells her clients, “‘Yup, I’m standing with you. Let’s do this. Let’s fight.'”