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Overview of Indigent Defense

Date Published
May 22, 2013

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right …to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense."

In federal court, criminal defendants facing charges that could result in imprisonment have the right to representation by legal counsel. It was not until a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases in the 1960s and 1970s, however, that the Court established this right in state criminal proceedings. The most notable of these cases was Gideon V. Wainwright. In Gideon, the Court held that an indigent person accused of a serious crime was entitled to the appointment of defense counsel at state expense.

By 2007 a total of 957 public defender offices in 49 states and the District of Columbia received more than 5.5 million cases and employed more than 15,000 full-time equivalent attorneys with operating expenditures of more than $2.3 billion.[1]

Providing indigent criminal defendants with access to effective legal counsel is critical to ensuring due process.  

Rigorous research can play an integral role in indigent defense services, policy and practice development. Research will help the field understand barriers to obtaining legal representation, identify and asses the means to address these barriers, and develop recommendations that are easily accessible to indigent defense practitioners and other stakeholders across the country.

NIJ has engaged in indigent defense research since the 1970s. Its current research focus includes:

  • Increasing the amount of rigorous research on indigent defense in the field.
  • Developing tools to improve the quality of indigent defense.
  • Enhancing understanding of the issues surrounding the availability of indigent defense services.

[note 1] Langton, L. & Farole, D. (2009) Census of Public Defender Offices, 2007 – Statistical Tables. In Maine, indigent defense services were covered by private attorneys.

National Institute of Justice, "Overview of Indigent Defense," May 22, 2013, nij.ojp.gov:
Date Created: May 22, 2013