The US Public Defender Crisis

What happens when the need for public defenders outweighs the resources for public defense?

It’s 1961 in Panama City, Florida. Clarence Earl Gideon is charged with breaking and entering, but he can’t afford a lawyer. After requesting a court-appointed attorney, Gideon is denied on the grounds that there’s no threat of a death sentence. Gideon, without the representation of an attorney, was eventually convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

In 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction unanimously finding that Gideon’s right to counsel wasn’t granted. Gideon v. Wainwright of 1963 didn’t just determine that defendants have a right to court-appointed attorneys, but the decision mandated states provide a defense attorney for any indigent clients facing felony charges.

The Sixth Amendment protects those who may not be able to afford the costs of a defense attorney, but if the need for public defenders outweighs the resources for public defense, what happens?

According to this report, in New Orleans, for example, a team of 60 public defenders had to juggle a whopping 20,000 cases in a single year. The consequences of overburdening caseloads and low pay can lead to a deterioration in the quality of defense, compromising a defendant’s right to due process.

Fewer hours spent developing defense cases means the detail and attention each individual case deserves may not always be feasible. Certain tasks are imperative to building a strong defense and may not be possible for defenders strapped for time—including interviewing witnesses, preparing experts, writing motions and conducting legal research. 

In 2011, the Justice Policy Institute found that only 27 percent of county-based and only 21 percent of state-based public defender’s offices had the legal teams to handle their caseloads. More shocking? In New Orleans, some public defenders could only dedicate seven minutes to a client’s case, and in Washington, some could only give a case less than an hour of attention. It takes time to build a strong defense—a whole lot more time than minutes or hours. Being indigent shouldn’t mean a compromised opportunity at a fair trial.

Less public defenders could mean some clients may even fall through the cracks. Understaffed and underfunded offices in Louisiana have actually led to a waitlist of new clients. Waitlisting clients forces them to sit in jail cells longer. If they’re innocent, this means a great length of time spent in jail away from work, family and other important parts of their life. They could lose their job(s) for no reason other than a failure by the state to fund and staff an essential element of the criminal justice system.

The most obvious consequence of this crisis is higher rates of incarceration. Poor defense can contribute to a higher likelihood of conviction and is more likely to make defendants feel pressured to plead guilty, even if they didn’t commit the crime. 

Research conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative found that the median income of nonincarcerated people was almost 60 percent higher than the incomes of those who go to prison. A cycle of poverty is aided by a cycle of incarceration. 600,000 people are released from prison each year, and a lack of resources to support their reentry makes it difficult to start over. Indigent clients face extra lifelong hardships without the added the short term and long term consequences of incarceration. 

At the end of the day, the public defender crisis affects all of us. Taxpayers pay more as a result of more convictions. Mass incarceration costs American’s $80 billion annually. The families affected by the incarceration of a loved one, wrongfully or otherwise, suffer financially and emotionally. The hardships they face can reverberate for generations to come.

For more information on West Virginia Public Defender Services or client eligibility requirements, visit their website at