The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees that all criminal defendants have the right to be represented by an attorney. Specifically, the Sixth Amendment states that:
“in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
This Sixth Amendment right has been interpreted to mean that any criminal defendant – regardless of ability to pay – is entitled to have a defense attorney for the duration of criminal proceedings. The position of public defender was ultimately developed after multiple Supreme Court decisions to ensure that criminal defendants who could not afford an attorney on their own would have access to counsel, as required by law.
What is a Public Defender?
A public defender is a licensed attorney who is paid by the state but works as a legal representative for criminal defendants. The state supplies funding and resources for the public defender’s office. This money is used to compensate attorneys who decide that they want to dedicate their legal craft to defending people who cannot afford to hire a private criminal defense lawyer. For example, assume someone is charged with murder in Illionios. They might need the assistance of an Illinois criminal defense attorney. If they can’t afford one, the court provides one to them.
When an indigent defendant demonstrates a need for an attorney, the court will appoint a public defender. The public defender’s job is to:
- Represent this defendant in all aspects of the criminal case; and
- Fight to ensure that the defendant’s rights are protected.
The Sixth Amendment right to counsel is a federal concept. However, states are generally faced with the task of creating and running public defender programs. These programs can vary from state to state.
Public Defender System in Georgia
The Georgia Public Defender Council is an “independent agency within the executive branch of the state government of Georgia,” and works to ensure that indigent defendants in Georgia have unfettered access to legal representation. The Council, which operates in all but six of Georgia’s counties, strives to provide indigent defendants with the same level of representation as clients who can afford to pay high-priced criminal defense attorneys. Criminal defendants who live in Gwinnett, Cobb, Houston, Forsyth, Douglas, or Cherokee counties must contact their county directly to obtain the services of a public defender.
Attorneys who are hired to work for the Georgia Public Defender Council are appointed by the court to represent indigent defendants or juveniles facing certain criminal charges. Defendants facing any criminal charges at any point in their criminal case are entitled to a public defender if they cannot afford to hire a private attorney. This means that indigent defendants can have a public defender represent them in:
- Pre-trial hearings and negotiations;
- During a trial;
- Probation revocation hearings; and
- An appeal.
Defendants who want the assistance of a public defender must apply by contacting the appropriate county’s public defender office. The defendant must submit financial information reflecting income and expenses to show why they need a public defender. Defendants who exhibit financial constraints will be approved.
Public Defender System in Illinois
In Illinois, each county has established its own specific public defender system. The attorneys employed in each of these offices strive to offer quality legal representation to indigent defendants in criminal matters. Defendants in Illinois are entitled to request the assistance of a public defender for cases involving:
- Misdemeanor crimes,
- Felony crimes,
- Traffic issues,
- Domestic violence,
- Juvenile delinquency,
- Child protection,
- Probation and/or parole proceedings, and
Defendants who want a public defender must formally make a request with the court handling their case. The court will ask the defendant to complete an Affidavit of Assets and Liabilities, which will help to paint a picture of that defendant’s financial situation. The court will review this Affidavit and determine if that defendant qualifies to receive a public defender’s assistance. If the defendant’s request is approved, a public defender will be appointed. If the request is denied, the defendant must hire a private Chicago defense attorney or proceed without legal assistance.
The Sixth Amendment right to counsel guarantees that every criminal defendant has access to competent legal representation. When that right is violated, defendants should turn to an experienced defense attorney for help. An attorney can help a defendant who was wrongfully denied legal representation achieve a positive outcome in his or her criminal case.