Tipping the Scales: 3 Challenges Public Defenders Face


Every American who is arrested has to right to an attorney under the Sixth Amendment. As you may have heard on any US TV show in which someone was arrested, if they can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided for them by the state. That state-provided attorney is a public defender. They represent 80 percent of those accused of crimes. While public defenders play a very important role in upholding the rights of indigent defendants, they do face a number of challenges. Let’s look at some of them.


There are not enough public defenders in the system to handle the number of accused who can’t afford a lawyer. This means state-provided lawyers are overwhelmed with cases.  Many of them have hundreds of clients assigned to them and can’t give them the time and attention they deserve. They can’t choose which clients they represent like those attorneys in private practice.

Public defenders, therefore, get a bad rap sometimes but it’s not that they are bad lawyers. Many are well-educated and naturally, they have lots of courtroom experience. however, the system as it currently stands prevents them from addressing clients’ cases quickly. Poor people can’t afford bail or private attorneys so they have to wait. Attorneys are forced to leave some languishing in jail while some admit to crimes they didn’t commit just to get out. Public defenders have to live with this on their conscience.

Low pay

Many lawyers don’t see public defense are an attractive career option since it is less lucrative than other areas of law. This means some of the best attorneys go into private practice. Those who enter the public defender system do so out of a sense of social justice and a desire to help the poor. Despite these noble intentions, many public defenders find themselves overworked and underpaid.

The low pay also keeps attorneys from marginalized communities out of public defense which means many accused people don’t have lawyers who understand them. The issue of low pay does not suggest that private attorneys don’t have challenges since chasing payments had let many of them to this site. However, they have the option of not working with certain clients.

Lack of resources

Court-appointed attorneys often don’t have access to the financial and other resources they need to properly represent clients. Their funding comes from the state or county except in the case federal defenders. Because of budget cuts, these entities are strapped for cash and some offices even try to get out of taking cases due to the lack of resources.

There is, unfortunately, a backlog of cases awaiting trial since there are simply not enough defenders to get them through the system. This means there are innocent people whose lives have been put on hold, something public defenders are only too well aware of. Their inability to ensure the Sixth Amendment is adhered to makes their job all the more challenging. Coupled with issues of pay and lack of resources, public defenders face an uphill battle daily.


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