Frequently Asked Questions
What is the origin of the right to counsel in criminal cases in the US?
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.
How are criminal defense services delivered to low income people facing criminal charges?
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.
How much is spent on indigent defense in the United States?
Among the findings:
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?
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.
How do I go about getting a lawyer to defend me against criminal charges if I cannot afford one?
Does NLADA have lawyers who can help me or a family member who is facing criminal charges or is
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, firstname.lastname@example.org
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?
Are there types of cases where I can't get a court-appointed lawyer no matter how poor I am?
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.
I'm a student doing a paper on a fascinating topic related to criminal justice. Can NLADA help
How about a career in indigent defense? Am I needed? What does it take? Is it rewarding?
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.