In the United States, the adversarial system of justice relies on ensuring a criminal defendant receives a fair trial. The sixth amendment gives defendants the right to legal representation in criminal trials even if they cannot afford one themselves. Each city and county in the United States ensures a defendant the right to counsel. There are different ways cities and counties across the United States provide representation for indigent defendants. One such approach to indigent defense is public defender programs and is a popular system used by many states today. Public defender programs have been around since the 1900’s but gained popularity throughout the years due to the many indigent defense cases.
Historically, the right to counsel was only guaranteed in federal criminal court (Wice, 2005). A person charged with a crime in the state court did not have the right to legal representation. Law scholar Professor Mason Beaney explained this by saying, “only a few states guaranteed the right to appointed counsel…In most jurisdictions counsel was appointed in none but the most serious cases, often only when the crime was punishable by death” (Wice, 2005, p. 3). Many defendants, who were poor, illiterate, and uneducated had to face the justice system without legal assistance (Smith, 2004, p. 579). Los Angeles County started one of the first public defender programs in 1914, spreading slowly to other counties (Neubauer & Fradella, 2011, p. 176). By the 1960’s, less than a dozen states still refused to provide attorneys to defendants unable to afford one (Smith, 2004).
There was a big change in 1963 when the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright transformed the way state courts applied the right to counsel to indigent defendants. In the Gideon v. Wainwright decision, the Supreme Court held that states were required to ensure a constitutional right to defendants facing felony charges who could not afford a private lawyer (Smith, 2004). Subsequently, in 1972 Argersinger v. Hamlin held that defendants were required legal counsel when faced with incarceration from a misdemeanor or felony conviction (Smith, 2004). Following these Supreme Court decisions, most state and local governments had to develop new systems of indigent defense or modify the old ones to keep up with the number of clients (Wice, 2005). Since Gideon v. Wainwright, other cases have challenged the Supreme Court application of the right to counsel. Currently, all defendants are given the right to counsel at all stages of the criminal justice process, including during trial, appeals, and even during police interrogation.
There are three different methods that states use to provide indigent defense; public defenders, assigned counsel, and contract attorneys. Depending on the size of a city or county usually determines what type of indigent defense is employed. Public defender programs can be public or private nonprofit organizations (Neubauer & Fradella, 2011). Public...