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Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainright
Learn more about this landmark case.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the origin of the right to counsel in criminal cases in the US?
The origin of the right to counsel in criminal cases in the US can be found in the Bill of Rights, enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution:

Amendment VI: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

However, it took the courts of this country a long time to recognize that the right to the "assistance of counsel" meant that counsel must be provided free to people who cannot afford to pay, in many different types of cases, at both the federal and state level.

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How are criminal defense services delivered to low income people facing criminal charges?
There are three basic models for the delivery of defense services:

  • The staffed public defender model, with employees on salary.
  • The assigned counsel model, where individual private attorneys are appointed to provide defense services, either from an ad hoc list maintained by the courts or through some more systematic organization of services.
  • The contract model, where individual attorneys or firms contract to provide some or all of a jurisdiction's indigent defense services.
Today, the majority of indigent defense in the United States is provided through a public defender model, particularly in larger urban jurisdictions.

More than half of the nation's counties still use the assigned counsel model.

Most states have organized some form of statewide defender services, whether in oversight, funding or both. Some states provide statewide services for a particular kind of representation, such as appeals or capital representation.

The chief defender is often selected by a commission or independent board, but many chief defenders at the state level are chosen by governors, while a few are chosen or approved by the judiciary.

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How much is spent on indigent defense in the United States?
Nobody knows for sure. The last nationwide study was completed in 1982 and is no longer valid. The U.S. Department of Justice did try conducting such a study again in 1999, but ran into insurmountable data collection problems. Two years of effort yielded only a study of the costs of indigent defense in the 100 largest counties .

Among the findings:

  • Within those counties, $1.2 billion was spent in 1999, to handle an estimated 4.2 million cases.
  • This constitutes 3% of the total criminal justice expenditures in those counties in 1999 ($38 billion; over $65 billion was spent nationwide).
  • These 100 counties account for 42% of the US population, 44% of people with incomes below the poverty level, and a slight majority of the crimes in the US.

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TV shows like NYPD Blue makes it sound like good police work is defeated if a suspect "lawyers up." Is it wrong to ask for a lawyer if the police arrest or want to interrogate me?
Not only is it not wrong, it's your RIGHT.

It makes good sense too. Many an innocent person who felt they had "nothing to hide" have gotten themselves in serious trouble by making uncounselled statements to police officers who suspect them of a crime. Even a person who may have done something wrong will benefit from a lawyer to help navigate the system, with its complicated rules and the many possibilities for injustice, mistake, or police or prosecutorial misconduct.

If police ever suspect you of a crime, you have a constitutional right to a lawyer, and if you ask for one, questioning absolutely must stop.

You have the right to say absolutely nothing.

Good police know that if they violate these rights, any confession will be thrown out, and the public interest will not be served.

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How do I go about getting a lawyer to defend me against criminal charges if I cannot afford one?
Check the phone directory to see if there is a public defender office in your area. Or call your local bar association. Or ask the judge or other court or jail official in your case. Check our links for Web sites of indigent defense agencies near you. If all else fails, call or e-mail NLADA (click on 'Contact Us' at the bottom of the page), and we'll try to refer you somewhere useful.

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Does NLADA have lawyers who can help me or a family member who is facing criminal charges or is in prison?
Sorry, no. We can't represent clients in individual cases - we spend all our time and energy providing training and support to the lawyers and other professionals who do.

We can help you find one, though - if you've been unsuccessful finding a defender through the phone directory, internet, bar association, or court. Call or e-mail NLADA, 202-452-0620, info@nlada.org

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I have so many other questions. How do they tell if I'm "indigent enough" to qualify for a court-appointed lawyer? How soon can I get one? Will it cost me anything?
These kinds of things vary from state to state, and sometimes from county to county. Generally, though, you don't have to be poverty-stricken or unemployed to qualify; 70% of all defendants receiving court-appointed lawyers have a job at the time of their arrest. Many states try to appoint a lawyer within 24 to 48 hours, but this frequently doesn't happen. And yes, if you have some money, you may be required to contribute a bit to the cost of your defense, either in an up-front "application fee" or some sort of "recoupment" after your case is over.

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Are there types of cases where I can't get a court-appointed lawyer no matter how poor I am?
Yes. The constitutional right to counsel applies only if you are facing a possible sentence to jail or prison. So a misdemeanor carrying no possible incarceration sentence doesn't qualify.

Also, the right to counsel terminates after the case is over and any conviction is made final on direct appeal - that is, the state is not constitutionally required to appoint a lawyer to help with habeas corpus or other post-conviction challenges. Some states, however, have taken it upon themselves to set up offices to help with petitions by prisoners and death row inmates. Check with your state or local bar association or court.

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I'm a student doing a paper on a fascinating topic related to criminal justice. Can NLADA help me?
You know, the Internet is an incredibly powerful research tool. Type almost any topic into a search engine and you'll get many useful hits. You can start with some of the Criminal Justice sites on our links page. On the death penalty in particular, there is a wealth of resources. Or try your local library.

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How about a career in indigent defense? Am I needed? What does it take? Is it rewarding?
Now you're talking. Yes, it's incredibly rewarding, helping safeguard the constitutional rights of people at the bottom of society's totem pole - and in the process, protecting liberties that generations of American patriots have fought and died for. Financially, it varies; but many public defender offices pay just as well as prosecutor offices.

Yes, you're needed. The profession of indigent defense doesn't always have the "allure" of other types of careers in law and justice. For the justice system to work in balance, it needs an even allocation of the best and brightest professionals on a par with the prosecution. If you care deeply about the rights of individuals, equal access to justice for poor and low-income people, and find criminal law and litigation stimulating, you might just check it out. Start with a look at our jobs listings.

To be a public defender or get court appointments requires a law degree, and commonly some form of specialized criminal defense training and experience. But there are also other interesting careers for people without a law degree. Paralegals have some legal training and help the lawyers with a lot of the case work. Investigators help by checking out the facts of the case to support the defendant's version of what happened. And many offices use social workers to figure out whether clients have problems that the lawyer and the court might be able to get them help with - like substance abuse or mental health problems - perhaps as an alternative to getting locked up.

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