In thinking about the question of public-private defense, it is important to note that in Alaska, as elsewhere in the country, over 80 percent of all criminal defense work is handled by public attorneys. In other words, over 80 percent of those charged with a criminal offense lack the economic means to pay for their own defense.
In Alaska, the court appoints a public attorney to represent a defendant whose income resources are insufficient to contract private counsel. Under Rules of Criminal Procedure 39 and 39.1 the court must look at a defendant’s entire financial picture in making the determination to appoint a publicly-financed attorney. A defendant whose income is below the adjusted federal poverty guidelines or who receives public assistance benefits through a state or federal program is presumptively eligible for public representation.
Table 1 presents 1999 Alaska income levels by borough or census area, including the number and percentage of the population below the federal poverty line.
The Public Defender’s Office carries the main responsibility for indigent criminal defense in Alaska, with the Office of Public Advocacy (OPA) taking those cases in which there is a conflict of interest for the PD’s office. In addition, contract attorneys hired through OPA take on criminal defense work at public expense. In reality, many attorneys doing criminal defense as private practitioners also serve at times as contract attorneys for OPA. Further, cases can evolve in which what originally is representation by a private attorney becomes representation by a court-appointed attorney when the client’s resources are exhausted.