Indigent Criminal Defense: The National Picture

Indigent Criminal Defense: The National Picture

Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. (Fall 2002). "Indigent Criminal Defense: The National Picture." Alaska Justice Forum 19(3): 2-3. This article looks at the various approaches to criminal defense services for low income defendants throughout the U.S. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1999 state government in 21 states provided 90 percent of the funding for indigent defense. In 11 of these, including Alaska, the state provided 100 percent of the funding. In the other 29 states funding came from differing combinations of state and county sources. In one state, Alabama, court fees funded indigent defense.

The decentralized and diverse arrangements for providing indigent criminal defense services in the individual states make it difficult to assemble and examine data in this area on a national basis. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1999, the state government in 21 states provided 90 percent of the funding for indigent defense. In 11 of these, including Alaska, the state provided 100 percent of the funding. In the other 29 states funding came from differing combinations of state and county sources. In one state, Alabama, court fees funded indigent defense. (See map.)

Figure 1. Funding Sources for Indigent Criminal Defense Services, 1999

The information available on the programs in the 21 states in which funding comes almost entirely through the state government permits some comparison among these states, although in 1999 they accounted for only 27 percent of the U.S. population.

These states provided defense representation through several different types of program. Most used a combination of three kinds of programs: a public defender office, an assigned counsel program, and a contract attorney arrangement. (See box.) For example, in Alaska, the Public Defender Agency handles the majority of indigent criminal defense cases, with cases in which a conflict of interest exists being taken by the Office of Public Advocacy. Contract attorneys are also used in some cases. In 1999, 18 other states had state-funded public defender offices as a component of their indigent defense arrangements.

In nine of these states, including Alaska, the public defender office was placed within the executive branch, and in six, in the judicial branch. In two states the program was an independent government agency, and for another two it was an independent, non-profit agency.

In 1999, the 21 states spent close to $662 million, over two and a half times the $251 million spent in 1982. Alaska spent more per capita than any other state (Table 1).

Most of the state-funded public defender programs handle a mixture of criminal and other types of cases (Table 2).

Table 1. State-funded Indigent Criminal Defense Services, 1982 and 1999
Table 2. Cases Received by State-Funded Public Defender Programs, 1999

New Approaches to Public Defense

Between 1999 and 2001, the Harvard School of Government hosted a series of meetings—The Executive Session on Public Defense (ESPD)—that brought together thirty practitioners and scholars of the justice system to examine the substantive policy issues presented by public defense. The group included public defenders from a variety of jurisdictions, a district attorney, a police chief, and academic and government researchers. As part of its work, the group looked at new models of defense programs—those that have shifted from a strictly case-oriented focus toward a broader, more holistic approach to clients. These programs incorporate services traditionally regarded as social work as part of the work of the public defender's office. They provide assistance with housing, benefits, substance abuse and various other problems that are viewed as prolonging client involvement with the justice system. A number of communities throughout the country, including some with heavy public defender loads, such as in the Bronx, New York, have redesigned their offices along these lines.

There is still a dearth of evaluative research on these programs, which are fairly new, just as there is a scarcity of research on public defense in general. One anecdotal observation regularly made is that moving toward a more holistic approach involves a change in office culture, through which the defense attorney becomes a member of a client's team as the legal problem is viewed as just one issue among a number that are being addressed.

Papers that emerged from the ESPD are available through the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Some data in the preceding article came from BJS Special Report "State-Funded Indigent Defense Services, 1999," NCJ 188464.