This report provides an overview of state public defense models and makes recommendations for addressing gaps in state oversight.
In collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice (ATJ), the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) sponsored a report on public defense system models in recognition of the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the right to counsel to indigent persons charged with felonies in state courts. Researchers conducted a national scan of the public defense service models used in state, local, and tribal adult, trial-level, criminal cases. The report addresses the prevalence of different models, factors contributing to how jurisdictions select models, and variations in outcomes associated with each model. The report found that 16 states have a commission and/or statewide defender program overseeing public defense services, while in 34 there are gaps in state oversight. States need a mechanism for monitoring and supporting access to quality public defense counsel. States also need to ensure that the people overseeing and administering public defense do not have professional conflicts of interest. Finally, defender systems need meaningful input on practice and policy from people who have been represented by public defenders or been impacted by the criminal justice system. Recent reform efforts have resulted in more states creating oversight commissions and shifting to greater use of state funds to provide access to quality counsel and public defense delivery methods. Experts recommend states collect data on the percentage of people who enter uncounseled guilty pleas and on defendant characteristics not limited to race and ethnicity to ascertain whether equitable access to counsel is available. Findings are based interviews with experts and a review and synthesis of publicly available material; the report is a national and current scan of public defense models and is intended to complement research based on more rigorous statistical surveys and program evaluations that may be dated or limited in coverage of jurisdictions.