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 training and technical assistance, public education, advocacy, and litigation. As part of its ongoing commitment to public defense issues, NACDL has released a number of reports over the years that seek to draw attention to systemic deficiencies, and has begun a series of advocacy manuals surrounding pretrial release advocacy. A summary of these reports and resources is available here.

The Rhode Island Project

The Sixth Amendment's promise that every person accused of a crime is entitled to counsel is a hollow one when the attorney appointed lacks the time and resources to provide meaningful representation. In order to determine whether defenders in Rhode Island are facing a caseload crisis, NACDL, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (ABA SCLAID), and the accounting firm of BlumShapiro undertook an assessment of the Rhode Island Public Defender system ("RIPD"). Based upon the data gathered, the RIPD would require 136 full-time equivalent attorneys to provide the necessary minimum level of representation needed for the average 15,000 plus new cases assigned each year. As of July 2017, there were only 49 public defenders in the entire state. The findings of this study, along with the underlying data and analysis, are detailed in The Rhode Island Project: A Study of the Rhode Island Public Defender System and Attorney Workload Standards. 

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.

Scholarship Instructions and Application: 

Application Deadlines: Review of applications for a particular program begins approximately three months prior to the start date of the program. After initial award offers are extended, applications are reviewed and awards made on a rolling basis. Individuals should apply early for the best chance of receiving awards, especially those seeking travel assistance. Applications received less than three weeks prior to the program date will not be considered. 

Gideon at 50 Project

A Three-Part Examination of Public Defense in America

Gideon_web_logoIn 2013, in conjunction with the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision of Gideon v. Wainwright, NACDL undertook a project to study how states have implemented the mandate of providing appointed counsel for those who cannot afford it.  In a three part series NACDL examined certain aspects of public defense delivery systems in all fifty states.

Part I - Rationing Justice: The Underfunding of Assigned Counsel Systems, released in March 2013, reviewed assigned counsel compensation rates in each of the fifty states finding that, by and large, private assigned counsel are paid unreasonably low rates inconsistent with the goal of providing constitutionally adequate representation.

Part II - Redefining Indigence: Financial Eligibility Guidelines for Assigned Counsel, released in March 2014, documents how states define “indigency” for purposes of qualification for appointed counsel, and concluded 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.”

Part III - Representation in All Criminal Prosecutions: The Right to Counsel in State Courts, released in October 2016, documents how states decide when a qualifying individual charged with criminal wrongdoing is entitled to receive appointed counsel, for instance, whether eligibility is tied to a specific sentence or charge type. The report concludes that while a majority of states go beyond the “actual incarceration” standard for appointing counsel under the Sixth Amendment, there is still much work left to be done to ensure that states comply with the right to counsel statutes or court interpretations in place.

Go to the project page for copies of all three reports and additional commentary by author John Gross.

News Of Interest

"Opinion: Innocent but Still Guilty," by Megan Rose, New York Times, January 18, 2018.

"Comptroller Calls for Removing Profit From City's Bail Equation," by Ashley Southall, New York Times, Januray 16, 2018.

"Since bail reform, Maryland holding fewer people who can't afford bond, Assembly panel told," by Scott Dance, Baltimore Sun, January 16, 2018.

"," Associated Press, January 14, 2018.

"Opinion: How to make an innocent client plead guilty ," by Jeffrey D. Stein, Washington Post, January 12, 2018.

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