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Indigent Defense Services in Large Counties, 1999 & Defense Counsel in Criminal Cases

WEDNESDAY, November 29, 2000 202/307-0784


WASHINGTON, D.C.- Publicly-financed counsel represented about 66 percent of federal felony defendants in 1998 as well as 82 percent of felony defendants in the 75 most populous counties in 1996, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced today. Such representation is provided by public defenders, attorneys assigned from lists and groups that contract to represent indigent defendants arrested for crimes. Indigent defense involves the use of publicly-financed counsel to represent indigent defendants those unable to afford private counsel.

The data, presented in a BJS report on indigent defense, also noted that conviction rates for indigent defendants and those with their own lawyers were about the same in federal and state courts. About 90 percent of the federal defendants and 75 percent of the defendants in the most populous counties were found guilty regardless of the type of their attorneys.

However, those found guilty and represented by publicly-financed attorneys were incarcerated at a higher rate than those defendants who paid for their own legal representation 88 percent compared to 77 percent in federal courts and 71 percent compared to 54 percent in the most populous counties.

On average, sentence lengths for defendants imprisoned were shorter for those with publicly-financed attorneys than for those who hired counsel. In federal district court those with publicly-financed attorneys were sentenced to under 5 years on average, and those with private attorneys just over 5 years. In large counties those with publicly- financed attorneys were sentenced to an average of 2 1/2 years and those with private attorneys to 3 years.

About half of felony defendants in large urban counties with public counsel and over three-quarters with private counsel were released from jail before trial. Bail was granted to 57 percent with public counsel and 65 percent with private attorneys. Of those allowed bail, about a third with a public attorney and three-quarters with a hired attorney were released before adjudication. The BJS report further indicates that a lack of financial assets that may have prevented defendants from hiring a private attorney may also have impeded them from posting bond.

Seventy-five percent of state and federal prison inmates who had a public defender or assigned counsel and 66 percent with their own counsel either pleaded guilty to the charges or did not contest them.

While 69 percent of white inmates in state prison reported they had lawyers appointed by the court, 77 percent of blacks and 73 percent of Hispanics had publicly-financed attorneys. In federal prison black inmates were more likely than whites and Hispanics to have public counsel 65 percent for blacks, 57 percent for whites and 56 percent for Hispanics.

About 70 percent of inmates in state prison who were employed full time prior to serving a prison sentence were defended by public counsel compared to 79 percent of those without a job. Among federal inmates 57 percent of those who were employed full time and 68 percent who were unemployed had an appointed lawyer.

Another BJS report published today stated that in 1999 an estimated $1.2 billion was spent to provide indigent criminal defense in the nation's 100 most populous counties. About 73 percent of the total was spent by public defender programs, 21 percent by assigned counsel programs and 6 percent on awarded contracts. This $1.2 billion represents an estimated 3 percent of all local criminal justice expenditures used for police, judicial services and corrections in these counties. The survey, conducted by BJS with funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, represents the first systematic study of indigent criminal defense services since the 1980s.

County governments provided 60 percent of all funds for indigent criminal defense services in the largest 100 counties while state governments provided 25 percent.

Indigent criminal defense programs in the largest 100 counties received an estimated 4.2 million cases in 1999. About 80 percent were criminal cases, 9 percent juvenile related, 2 percent civil and 8 percent other types of criminal cases dealing with such issues as juvenile dependency, abuse and neglect and contempt.

Public defender offices in the largest 100 counties employed more than 12,700 individuals during 1999, including more than 6,300 assistant public defenders, 1,200 investigators, 300 social workers, 2,700 support staff and nearly 400 paralegal staff members.

More than 30,700 private attorneys were appointed through assigned counsel programs to represent indigent defendants in the largest 100 counties during 1999, and more than 1,000 contracts for indigent defense services were administered by contract attorney programs.

The two reports are "Defense Counsel in Criminal Cases" (NCJ-179023), written by BJS statistician Caroline Wolf Harlow and "Indigent Defense Service in Large Counties, 1999" (NCJ-184932), written by BJS statisticians Carol J. DeFrances and Marika F.X. Litras. Single copies of both reports may be obtained from the BJS fax-on-demand system by dialing 301/519-5550, listening to the complete menu and selecting document numbers 222 for the first one and 223 for the second. Or call the BJS clearinghouse number: 1-800- 732-3277. Fax orders for mail delivery to 410/792-4358.

The BJS Internet site is:


Additional criminal justice materials can be obtained from the Office of Justice Programs homepage at:


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After hours contact: Stu Smith at 301/983-9354

Date Published: November 29, 2000