Public Defenders: State Directory

Public defenders play a vital role in the U.S. criminal justice system. They provide legal representation to defendants needing help with criminal charges, potentially influencing their criminal record.

Everyone has the right to legal counsel in certain criminal law matters. But not everyone has the means to pay. A public defender is a lawyer appointed by the courts and provided by the state or federal government to represent defendants who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. Public defenders represent defendants at every stage, from the first court date (the arraignment) through plea bargains and appeals.

This article covers when a person has the right to an attorney and how they can get a public defender appointed to help them.

The Right to Legal Counsel

The right to legal counsel was established in the landmark 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which built upon the 1932 case Powell v. Alabama.

In Powell, the Court ruled that in capital cases where defendants couldn't afford counsel and were incapable of an adequate defense, it was the trial court's duty to appoint attorneys for them. Failure to do so, the court said, violated the defendant's right to due process under the 14th Amendment. The case established that states must provide legal counsel to indigent defendants facing the death penalty.

Three decades later, Gideon v. Wainwright affirmed that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of counsel applies to defendants in state criminal courts through the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. The 6th Amendment states, "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense."

Gideon established the right to appoint counsel for indigent defendants charged with felony cases—not just capital cases. Before Gideon, many states did not provide attorneys for those unable to afford them. But Gideon affirmed that legal counsel is a fundamental right, even if a defendant cannot pay.

The court later broadened the entitlement to legal representation to encompass state-level misdemeanors with a significant likelihood of incarceration, often for a duration of a year or more.

The Sixth Amendment's right to counsel is for criminal cases only. It's not for civil cases or charges that do not carry a risk of imprisonment.

Public Defender Offices

Public defender offices were established nationwide to fulfill the constitutional duty to defend indigent defendants set forth in these U.S. Supreme Court rulings. States began hiring public defenders and attorney's offices to provide legal representation for indigent defendants. The government employs public defenders and assistant public defenders. States and localities use these methods of delivering indigent defense services.

There are county, state, and federal public defenders. County and state public defenders typically handle a caseload of various types of cases, ranging from misdemeanors to felony criminal cases. Federal public defenders represent defendants accused of federal crimes.

Public defender offices generally have a staff of assistant public defenders, paralegals, investigators, and other support staff.

Some jurisdictions hire private counsel to provide indigent legal representation:

  • Assigned counsel are private attorneys appointed by the court on a case-by-case basis to represent indigent defendants. The attorneys are either paid an hourly rate or a low flat fee per case.
  • Contract counsel are private attorneys who make a deal with the court or local government to take on a set number of indigent defense cases. They do so for an agreed-upon fee during the contract.

The public defender's office might have a conflict of interest with a case that is being handled or has been handled by the public defender's office. If so, a private attorney will be hired to provide defense services.

In all scenarios, the goal is fulfilling the constitutional duty to provide competent legal representation to criminal defendants unable to afford counsel.

Sometimes, people believe that “Public defenders aren't real attorneys." They are wary of the help that a public defender can provide. Public defenders are licensed attorneys and members of the state bar association.

The following resources can help you find a public defender and learn about the rules and procedures in your state.

National Resources

State Guide to Public Defenders









District of Columbia





















New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

New York

North Carolina

North Dakota





Rhode Island

South Carolina

South Dakota







West Virginia



Get Help From a Public Defender or Private Attorney

If you've been charged with a crime in which you face jail time, you'll want legal representation. In fact, you have a constitutional right to a legal defense when facing certain criminal offenses. If you can't afford an attorney, a public defender or other legal professional, such as a court-appointed attorney, may be able to provide help with your legal issue. Contact a local criminal defense attorney to learn more about your options.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Complex criminal defense situations usually require a lawyer
  • Defense attorneys can help protect your rights
  • A lawyer can seek to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties

Get tailored advice and ask your legal questions. Many attorneys offer free consultations.


If you need an attorney, find one right now.