Indigent Criminal Defense: A National Perspective (A BJS Report)

Indigent Criminal Defense: A National Perspective (A BJS Report)

Bureau of Justice Statistics

"Indigent Criminal Defense: A National Perspective (A BJS Report)" by Bureau of Justice Statistics. Alaska Justice Forum 13(2): 2-3 (Summer 1996). The Bureau of Justice Statistics describes criminal defense services for low income people throughout the United States. Based on the Bureau of Justice Statistics report "Indigent Defense", NCJ-158909.

Court-appointed legal representation for indigent criminal defendants plays a critical role in the nation's criminal justice system. In 1991 about three-quarters of state prison inmates and half of federal prison inmates reported that they had a court-appointed lawyer to represent them for the offense for which they were serving time. In 1989, nearly 80 per cent of local jail inmates indicated that they were assigned an attorney to represent them for the charges on which they were being held. This report presents selected findings drawn from Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) surveys containing information related to indigent defense for criminal defendants.

The sixth amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishes the right to counsel in federal criminal prosecution. Through a series of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has extended the right to counsel for indigent defendants to state criminal prosecution. A landmark decision was made in 1963 when the Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright (372 U.S. 335 [1963]) that a defendant charged with a felony, including state crimes, had the right to counsel. Almost ten years later, Argersinger v. Hamlin (407 U.S. 25 [1972]) extended an indigent's right to counsel to all criminal prosecutions, felony or misdemeanor, which carry a sentence of imprisonment.

Table 1. Indigent Defense Delivery Systems Used by Local Jurisdictions, 1992

Types of State Delivery Systems

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has mandated that the states must provide counsel for indigents accused of crime, how each state provides such services has not been specified. The states have devised various systems, rules for organizing, and funding mechanisms for providing counsel for poor defendants. In general, three systems have emerged throughout the country as the primary means to provide defense services for indigent defendants.

Public defender programs are public or private nonprofit organizations with full-or part-time salaried staff. In 28 states a public defender system is the primary method used to provide indigent counsel for criminal defendants.

Assigned counsel systems involve the appointment by the courts of private attorneys as needed from a list of available attorneys.

Contract attorney systems involve governmental units that reach agreements with private attorneys, bar associations, or private law firms to provide indigent services for a specified dollar amount and for a specified time period.

The federal justice system provides indigent defense to eligible defendants through the Federal Defender Services, community defender organizations, and private attorneys as established by the Criminal Justice Act of 1964 with its amendments.

Traditionally, assigned counsel systems and public defenders have been the primary means to provide legal representation to the poor. In 1992, 64 per cent of state court prosecutors' offices nationwide reported a public defender program in their jurisdiction and 58 per cent indicated an assigned counsel system, while 25 per cent of prosecutors' offices indicated that their district contracted with law firms, private attorneys, or local bar associations to provide services to indigent offenders.

State and Local Expenditures for Public Defense

In 1979, state and local governments spent more than $350 million to provide legal counsel to indigent defendants. This included expenditures for civil litigation. In 1990, state and local governments spent an estimated $1.3 billion for these services. In constant 1990 dollars, the state and local expenditures doubled for public defense from 1979 to 1990. In 1979, state-level expenditures represented about 36 per cent of the overall spending for public defense. In 1990, state contributions accounted for 45 per cent of the state and local total.

Table 2. State and Local Expenditures for Public Defence, 1979-1990
Table 3. Type of Counsel Representing Inmates in Federal and State Correctional Facilities, 1991
Table 4. State and Federal Inmates with Court-Assigned Counsel, by Race and Type of Offense, 1991
Table 5. Type of Counsel Representing Inmates in Local Jails, 1989
Table 6. When Local Jail Inmates First Talked with a Lawyer, by Type of Counsel, 1989
Table 7. Local Jail Inmates with Court-Assigned Counsel, by Race and Offense, 1989

The preceding article was derived from Bureau of Justice Statistics report "Indigent Defense," NCJ-158909. Copies of the entire report may be obtained from the Alaska Justice Statistical Analysis Unit or on the World Wide Web from the Bureau of Justice Statistics or the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS).