Public Defender FAQ

Public defenders play an essential role in the American criminal justice system. Without the public defender, it would be next to impossible to ensure that all defendants are able to exercise their Sixth Amendment right to counsel. If you are facing criminal charges you may have some questions about the public defender and if court-appointed counsel is right for you.

In an effort to help you understand more, we’ve addressed some of the most frequently asked questions about public defenders.

Who Does a Public Defender Work For?

Even though public defenders are paid by the government, these attorneys work for the defendants they represent in criminal matters. Most jurisdictions in the country have a dedicated Office of the Public Defender. It is funded with government money but operates as an entirely independent and separate entity.

The relationship between a public defendant and a client is no different than the relationship between a private attorney and a client. If you are represented by a public defender you will still be protected by attorney-client privilege and have a skilled legal professional by your side.

How Much Do Public Defenders Make?

It is no secret that attorneys do not choose to become public defenders for the money. According to a study by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the average public defender salary depends on the amount of experience each attorney has:

  • Entry Level: $47,500
  • 5 Years Experience: $60,280
  • 10+ Years Experience: $76,16.

This is in stark contrast to the average salary for private criminal defense attorneys. Associates in private firms tend to earn between $80,000 and $135,000 in their first year as a lawyer, while attorneys with 5 years of experience generally bring in anywhere between $95,600 and $172,000 each year.

Are Public Defenders Good Lawyers?

Just because public defenders earn less money than criminal defense attorneys who are privately employed does not mean they are inferior legal professionals. All attorneys, regardless of where they are employed, must pass a difficult legal test – known as the Bar Exam – before they can be licensed to practice law. This helps to ensure that all attorneys are competent and equipped with the skills necessary to be an effective lawyer.

It’s also true that many top law school graduates decide to dedicate their passion for the law to the public defender’s office. These young attorneys tend to be fierce advocates of defendant rights and want to make a difference in the criminal justice system. While some attorneys will move on after a few years in the public defender’s office, others will stay to fight for the Sixth Amendment.

Who Do Public Defenders Represent?

While everyone has the right to be represented by an attorney in criminal matters, not everyone will qualify to be represented by a public defender. In most cases, public defenders are only appointed when you demonstrate that you cannot afford an attorney on your own. The court may appoint a public defender automatically (especially if you cannot afford to post bail) or consider your request to have a public defender assigned to your case.

If you request a public defender you will have to demonstrate that your financial situation will not allow you to hire an attorney on your own. A court will review financial information including, but not limited to, your income, assets, savings, debts, and living expenses. If a judge determines that you would not be able to afford an attorney, they will assign a public defender to your case. If your request for a public defender is denied, you have the right to appeal the decision.