Public Defense

The right to counsel, embodied in the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, is the primary safeguard of a defendant’s rights within the criminal justice system. Adequate representation ensures that all other rights – to be free from unlawful search and seizure, against self-incrimination, to confront witnesses, to a jury trial, etcetera – are protected. In 1963, the United States Supreme Court, in Gideon v. Wainwright, made clear that the right to counsel applies to every citizen, regardless of whether the defendants can afford to pay an attorney. Sadly, in the United States today, the right to counsel is not being enforced. Lack of standards, oversight and funding have led thousands of people to be processed without their right to counsel.


NACDL is committed to ensuring quality representation for all accused individuals and has set out to help reform inadequate state and local public defense systems through technical assistance, public education, advocacy, and litigation.

Scholarship Program

NACDL is pleased to offer scholarship assistance for public defense providers to attend Continuing Legal Education programs. The scholarships are awarded in the form of full or partial reimbursement of the registration costs of the excellent training programs offered by NACDL and other national organizations. Limited travel reimbursement stipends may also be awarded to qualifying individuals to help defray the costs of travel and lodging.

More information about the scholarships, including detailed eligibility criteria, is available on the application forms. The scholarship application for NACDL training programs is available here. The Multi-Organizational Public Defense Training Scholarship Application is available here. Answers to FAQs are available here.

Application Deadlines: Scholarship applications are reviewed on a rolling basis, with review of applications for a particular program beginning approximately three months prior to the start date of the program. Applicants who are seeking travel assistance should submit their applications at least six weeks prior to the start date of a program for the best chance of receiving travel awards. Applications received less than three weeks prior to the program date will not be considered.

Federal Settlement Addresses Municipal Court Bonds

On June 3, 2015, a settlement order was issued in a Missouri case that prohibits the imposition of cash or surety bonds for municipal court offenses in Velda City. The class action lawsuit of Donya Pierce, et al., v. The City of Velda City (Case No. 4:15-cv-570-HEA),filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, arose from the city’s practice of requiring cash or surety bonds in set amounts for municipal violations, without regard to the individual’s circumstances or ability to pay. The order states that the resulting difference in treatment between those who can afford to pay and those who cannot is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, noting that “[i]f the government generally offers prompt release from custody after arrest upon posting a bond pursuant to a schedule, it cannot deny prompt release from custody to a person because the person is financially incapable of posting such a bond.”

Pursuant to the settlement order, Velda City will no longer use secured money bail for municipal court offenses, instead releasing accused people on written promises to appear or unsecured money bonds.  In the event of a failure to appear, a procedure is outlined to set a new court date without the need to re-arrest the individual in most cases.  The full text of the order is available here.


Gideon at 50 Project

A Three-Part Examination of Indigent Defense in America

Gideon_web_logoRationing Justice is a 50-state survey of assigned counsel rates that identifies the current hourly rates paid to private attorneys who represent the indigent in criminal cases as well as the maximum fee that can be earned by those attorneys. The ABA Ten Principles of a Public Delivery System calls for the active participation of the private bar in indigent defense, even in areas where the volume of cases is sufficiently high to warrant the establishment of a public defender's office. Private attorneys must be available to handle case where the public defender's office has a conflict and to handle cases when public defender caseloads become excessive. Without their participation, our nation's indigent defense systems cannot guarantee that all defendants will receive equal justice under the law.

Part II is a 50-State Survey of Financial Eligibility Guidelines for Assigned Counsel that documents how states decide who is “too poor” to hire a lawyer. The survey looks at how states define “indigency” and whether or not that definition is consistent with ABA standards for providing defense services. It identifies which states rely on the Federal Poverty Guidelines when determining eligibility for assigned counsel, and explains the origin of the Federal Poverty Guidelines and how they cannot accurately predict who is “too poor” to hire a lawyer. The survey then looks at the fees and costs imposed on supposedly indigent defendants who are assigned counsel. These include application fees, payable at the time a request for counsel is made, and reimbursement fees, payable at the conclusion of the case or over time. The report concludes that in adopting unduly restrictive eligibility criteria and other policies, too many states have been able to ignore the central premise of Gideon that “lawyers in criminal courts are luxuries, not necessities.”

Learn more about this project.

News Of Interest

"With its members selected, the Indigent Defense Commission will start working on Utah’s public defender problems," by Jessica Miller, The Salt Lake Tribune, October 20, 2016.

"Our Views: Still a crisis brewing in indigent criminal defense," by Advocate Editorial, The Advocate, October 19, 2016.

"Jailed 96 Days on Bogus Charge: It Is No One's Fault?," by Jeff Amy, Associated Press, October 19, 2016.

"Assistant public defender David Phillips: One misdemeanor charge can mess up your life," Tulsa World, October 19, 2016.

"Bent on Bail," Injustice Watch, October 14, 2016.

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