U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Public Defense


The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution sets forth the right to counsel in federal criminal prosecutions. Through a series of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, the right to counsel has been extended to all criminal prosecutions—state or federal, felony or misdemeanor—that carry a sentence of imprisonment.

States and localities ensure defendants can access public defense—criminal defense services for those persons who cannot afford to pay for their own lawyer—through several different methods, including—

  • public defender programs
  • assigned or appointed counsel programs
  • contract with private law firms.

The federal court system also has several types of programs to deliver public criminal defense, such as—

  • public defender organizations
  • community defender organizations
  • Criminal Justice Act (CJA) panel attorneys.

The Survey of Public Defenders is a new BJS data collection that will directly survey public defenders. The survey queries public defenders about their access to clients, expert witnesses, and criminal investigative technologies, as well as communication mediums and continuing education opportunities. Further, it will collect data on public defender caseloads, defendant and attorney demographics, and case outcomes.

BJS previously conducted the Census of Public Defender Offices (CPDO) in 2007, and the National Survey of Indigent Defense Systems (NSIDS) as a survey in 1999 and as a census in 2013. The CPDO provided administrative data on the staffing, budgets, training, and caseloads of public defender systems. NSIDS and CPDO collected similar information, but NSIDS included public defenders, assigned or appointed counsel, and contracts.