Public defenders are lawyers who defend people charged with a crime and cannot pay for her/his services. Instead public defenders are normally reimbursed by the state, usually at a lesser amount than the lawyer would make in private practice. The necessity of providing counsel to those charged with a crime was not reinforced until the 1960s. The current public defense system is due to the Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright.
Mr. Gideon argued it was impossible to match the skills of a lawyer when he defended himself against criminal charges. Gideon’s argument won with the Supreme Court, who agreed a private person, especially one without significant education or ability to pay, needs the expertise of a lawyer to prepare an adequate defense. This decision was in keeping with the 6th Amendment, which specifies that people who are charged with a crime have the right to counsel. Yet not all can afford counsel. Therefore, many cities, counties, and states responded to the decision in Gideon V. Wainwright and established public defender offices.
Sometimes public defenders are called criminal defense attorneys. Private defense attorneys can serve as public defenders when they wish, regardless of the client’s ability to pay, which is usually called taking a case "pro bono." In this case, the public defender can do myriad other things besides participating in the defense of someone charged with a crime. He or she may work in many different fields of law. The private lawyer may also become a public defender when he or she is appointed by the court to do so. In districts without full public defense offices, certain private lawyers may take turns working as public defenders, so that anyone who needs counsel to prepare their defense has such access.
Public defenders help clients prepare for trial, field any offers of plea bargains, arrange for expert testimony when required, and advise clients on the best way to pursue a case. The public defender researches matters of law pertinent to the case at hand, and composes or with the help of staff composes any legal briefs needed for a trial to proceed. He engages in the defense of his client, whoever that may be and regardless of crime committed, and uses the law to offer the client his best defense. With the client he discusses how the client should plead, investigates any mitigating issues that might provide a better defense, and essentially participates in all aspects of the defense from pretrial motions through post-trial requirements.
A growing concern in an increasingly clogged court system is how effectively public defenders may be able to perform their jobs when caseloads are heavy. Some clients complain that they don’t even meet their public defenders until the day of trial, and they don’t have much advice besides a quick consultation outside the courtroom doors. This can be the case in some areas of the country, and there have been some statistics showing that a person defended by a public defender is more likely to serve a longer sentence or to be convicted. Conversely, private criminal attorneys may have more resources, like access to experts to testify for the defense that may not equally be available to public defenders.
This is a matter that continues to need to be addressed, specifically in areas where heavy criminal activity means overburdened public defenders. Since all trials and all defenses should theoretically be equal, the public defender needs time to pursue and defend a case with his/her full attention, and needs access to the resources of expert testimony. Without such time and resources, even the most avid and skilled public defender may be unable to prepare the best possible defense for a client, which may establish inequality in how clients are then judged.