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Public Defense

The right to counsel, guaranteed by the 6th Amendment, promises every person, regardless of their charges or resources, has a skilled, zealous advocate by their side when they stand accused of a crime. As Gideon and other cases recognized, defendants' procedural and substantive rights cannot be protected unless every person has an attorney with the resources, skills, and independence to advocate for them. NACDL works to help reform inadequate public defense systems through training and technical assistance, public education, advocacy, and litigation.

Few rights are as fundamentally American as the Sixth Amendment's promise that when the government brings its power to bear against an individual, that government also bears the responsibility to ensure the accused has a zealous and dedicated advocate to defend them. A robust defense function helps mitigate against wrongful convictions of the innocent and unjust, excessive sentences for those who are guilty; ensure the Constitution's protections and prohibitions are maintained; shines a light on government overreaches and abuses of power; and protects both the accused and the community. 

Learn about NACDL's Commitment to the Right to Counsel

Justice for All: Strengthening the Sixth Amendment Project


Assigned Counsel Rates Defender Scholarships Gideon Past & Present Public Defense Reports Racial Bias & Disparity Spotlight on Training State & Federal Issues Systemic Challenges  

There is no universal model for providing public defense services. Some jurisdictions have agencies that provide holistic services while others rely exclusively on flat fee contracts to provide representation for every person who qualifies. Regardless of the form they take, across the country public defense systems and the attorneys who work in them are being stretched to their breaking point, jeopardizing the promise of equal justice for all.

NACDL supports increases in assigned counsel rates

Nationally a patchwork of statutes, court rules, and local practices determines how attorneys handling assigned counsel cases are compensated, although virtually all share a core problem: the rates paid are abysmal, often failing to cover basic expenses. NACDL works to ensure court-appointed counsel receive prompt payment, fair hourly rates that take into account overhead and reasonable fees, and end the use of fee caps which can be barriers to meaningful representation.


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Challenging Systemic Deficiencies, Supporting Systemic Strength

While Gideon did not describe how each state was to fulfill its 6th Amendment obligations, the Court did make clear the ultimate responsibility for providing public defense lies with the state. States may elect to delegate decisions about public defense structure, oversight, and funding to their counties, but doing so does not absolve them of their responsibility to assure every public defense system has the resources, support, and structure to provide a constitutionally effective defense. Currently many barriers prevent jurisdictions from meeting their constitutional obligation. Through its reports, policies, testimony, and litigation NACDL works to challenge systemic deficiencies and offer resources to create strong public defense delivery systems.


NACDL Reports on State and Systemic Public Defense Issues

  • Collateral Consequences
  • Federal Indigent Defense 
  • Florida 
  • Louisiana
  • Misdemeanor Cases
  • Pretrial Advocacy 
  • Public Defense System
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina 
  • Trial Penalty

Public Defense in Your State

NACDL works to improve and support public defense at the state and local level. From legislative advocacy to litigation support, commenting on court rules to systemic evaluations, NACDL is committed to insuring every person who faces a criminal accusation has meaningful access to an attorney with the time, resources, and expertise needed to provide an effective defense at all stages of the proceedings; has all relevant information needed to make informed decisions about their case; is not subjected to excessive penalties, fines, or fees; and has access to the support personnel needed to fully investigate the government's accusation, challenge questionable forensic practices, and present meaningful evidence in mitigation.

See what is happening in your state

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Federal Public Defense

Often considered the gold standard of public defense because of its lower caseloads and better resources than its state level counterparts, the federal public defense system has a number of fundamental systemic flaws that must be corrected for it to serve as the role model it should be. When Congress first authorized the creation of federal public defender offices in 1970, it recognized "the desirability of eventual creation of a strong, independent office to administer the federal defender program," but felt it premature to do so until there was an opportunity to view the operation of the office "over the course of a few years". Report of the Committee to Review the Criminal Justice Act at 9-10 (1993) (Also known as the Prado Report), quoting Senate Report No. 91-790, 91st Cong. 2d Sess. April 23, 1970 at 18). Nearly 5 decades later the federal public defense program remains wholly under the thumb of the  judiciary, but spurred on by NACDL and others there are efforts underway to change that.

More on Federal Public Defense

Public Defense Legislation

In 2022, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici reintroduced the EQUAL Defense Act (HB 9325). The bill aims to bring a measure of parity to the criminal legal system by supporting state and local public defense providers. Among the bill's goals are: 

  • Establishing workload limits for public defenders
  • Promoting pay parity for public defenders and prosecutors
  • Increasing court appointed counsel fees to meet federal rates
  • Increasing defender training 
  • Reauthorizing and increasing funding for student loan repayment 

The bill is supported by NACDL, the ACLU, Color of Change, Gideon's Promise, Lawyers Committee for Civil and Human Rights, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, NAPD, NLADA, and Project on Government Oversight.

Take Action on the EQUAL Defense Act  More Public Defense Legislation

Racial Disparity in the Criminal Legal System

Race matters in our criminal legal system. It pervades every aspect of a case, from how likely you are to be stopped by the police, whether you will be subjected to a search, how high your bail is, how likely the state is to seek the death penalty, and how long your sentence may be. NACDL is committed to combating racial bias and racial disparity in the criminal legal system. 

More on Racial Disparity in the Criminal Legal System

Spotlight on Training

A meaningful defense includes a public defense bar who are skilled and knowledgeable. To help public defense attorneys have access to information on core and evolving issues NACDL offers a variety of webinars, trainings, and other resources. On a rotating basis, NACDL will highlight some of these materials. 

Today's Feature: C is for Cross Examination

No skill is more fundamental to the success of the adversarial system than cross-examination. Emanating from the Sixth Amendment's guarantee that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right ... to be confronted with the witnesses against him," the Confrontation Clause ensure a defendant the right to put the honesty, truthfulness, and accuracy of a witness's assertions to the test through cross-examination Mattox v. U.S., 156 US 237 (1895)) Defense attorneys must constantly work to hone their craft and NACDL has resources to help.

Check out the featured topic 

More Public Defense Trainings

   Clarence Earl Gideon

  • Learn the history of Clarence Earl Gideon 
  • Read the transcripts from his original trial
  • Explore the work of the lawyers
  • See Gideon's legacy today

More NACDL Public Defense  

Scholarship Opportunities: NACDL offers scholarships to assist public defense attorneys (including public defenders and members of the private bar accepting court appointments) to attend national trainings. 

Public Defense Scholarships

Award: NACDL honors individuals and organizations for exceptional efforts in making positive changes to local, county, state, or federal public defense systems with its Champion of Public Defense Award. In 2019, NACDL honored the Civil Rights Corps and the San Francisco Public Defender's Office for their joint work pursuing pretrial reforms in the state of California. 


Justice for All: Strengthening the Sixth Amendment Project

The Justice for All: Strengthening the Sixth Amendment grant is aimed at enhancing the capacity of state and local jurisdictions to protect the core rights enshrined in the Sixth Amendment. The interconnectedness of the problem necessitates a project design with a holistic approach to finding, implementing, and assessing solutions. Understanding the need for this collaborative framework, NACDL has partnered with the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA), the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), and RTI International (RTI), all of whom bring a wealth of experience in providing TTA and programmatic assessments in collaborative environments to a full range of jurisdictions and criminal justice systems. Visit the Strengthening the Sixth website to learn more about the project, find resources on each of the rights guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, explore an interactive map of state discovery laws, watch recorded webinars, apply for training and technical assistance, and more.

Explore the Strengthening the Sixth Website


Public Defense in The Champion

Read about public defense news and issues in NACDL's The Champion magazine.

Questions about NACDL's work in Public Defense, contact Bonnie Hoffman, Director of Public Defense Reform and Training (202)465-7649



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