US Public Defense: Introduction

Introduction: Organization of Criminal Legal Aid
Two notable attributes distinguish criminal legal aid in the United States from that in most other countries. Frist, criminal legal aid, known in America as public defense, is typically separate from civil legal aid, which provides legal services for non-criminal legal needs for low-income people. Second, the United States does not have a unified system for the provision of public defense services. The federal court system does not control the state court systems. In fact, state court systems include many levels of courts that vary by state, counties within each state and cities within each county. These sub-federal public defense systems are numerous and widely varied across the country.

Separation of Civil and Criminal Legal Aid
Generally speaking, public defense in the United States has separate providers, budgets, and funding mechanisms. Notably, whereas many state and local civil legal aid providers receive substantial funds originating from the federal government, Legal Services Corporation, state and local public defense providers receive virtually no federal funding; federal money for public defense is almost entirely restricted to the federal public defense system (i.e., attorneys for people accused of federal crimes in federal court). Sub-federal public defense programs are generally funded by state and local governments.

Although public defense and civil legal aid is generally separate, many public defense providers look to address their clients’ civil legal needs that may stem from or intersect with their criminal cases—including needs related to immigration, employment, housing, and government benefits—via the holistic defense model of service delivery. Adoption of this model is currently limited but growing. Poverty in the United States drives people into both criminal and civil courts and the underlying needs of people experiencing poverty are important to address in both systems.