The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees your right to assistance of counsel, i.e., an attorney, whenever you face criminal prosecution, as a criminal defense lawyer, such as from Daniel J. Wright, can explain. In addition, your Miranda rights consist of the following:
- You have the right to remain silent.
- Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
- You have the right to an attorney.
- If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.
By virtue of these guarantees, yes, your state makes lawyers available to you when you cannot afford to hire a private criminal justice lawyer.
Each state has what likely is called the Office of Public Defender. This state agency employs state-licensed lawyers to act as legal counsel in all state and county courts for indigent defendants who cannot afford to hire a private lawyer.
Keep in mind, however, that each state sets its own rules and requirements for what constitutes an indigent defendant. In other words, you must qualify to receive public defender representation. They don’t just appear automatically. The court must appoint them in qualifying cases.
Public Defender Limitations
Unfortunately, a public defender almost invariably has a huge case load. In addition, lawyers who work for the Office of Public Defender earn considerably lower salaries than lawyers who work for a law firm or as solo practitioners. These facts have the practical effect of most public defenders being young, inexperienced attorneys fresh out of law school who see a stint serving as a public defender as a stepping stone to a future more lucrative career.
A second practical effect of high caseloads combined with low salaries and insufficient state funding means that your public defender may well not have the time or resources to fully investigate your case or take it to trial. Rightly or wrongly, many public defenders see their main job as effectuating the best possible plea bargains for their clients.
Your Ultimate Choice
While the Sixth Amendment guarantees you the right to legal representation in criminal cases, it does not guarantee you the right to the best legal representation available. If there is any way for you and your family to raise the funds necessary to pay a private criminal defense attorney, this likely gives you your best chance of successfully defending against the charges against you at trial. If you absolutely cannot do this, however, accepting the services of a public defender, even with its inherent limitations, constitutes a far better choice than attempting to represent yourself.