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Research the System
Here are answers to some commonly asked questions that may help to clarify the public defender's role in the larger context of the legal and criminal justice system.

Although public defenders are the main form of legal representation for poor or indigent defendants, there are other types of public legal assistance, which is why some statistics include the term "or other publicly funded counsel."

The source of this data is the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Statistics, unless otherwise noted.


What proportion of defendants actually use public defenders?

In 1998, roughly 66 percent (two-thirds) of all federal felony defendants were represented by public defenders or other publicly funded counsel. At the county level, in 1996, 82 percent of felony defendants in the 75 most populous counties used public defenders.




How much money is spent to provide defense to those who cannot afford a lawyer?

In 1999, in the nation's 100 most populous counties, an estimated $1.2 billion was spent to provide defense to those who could not afford to hire their own legal counsel. That $1.2 billion makes up roughly 3 percent of the counties' total criminal justice expenditures, which include police, judicial services and corrections systems.

In 2001, prosecutors' offices in districts with populations of half million or more across the United States had a combined budget of $2.9 billion and a staff size of 234 employees. In 1999*, public defender programs in the 100 most populous counties had a total budget of $1.2 billion and a median staff size of 92 employees.

Currently**, the Office of the Public Defender in San Francisco County has 86 public defense attorneys and a total operating budget of $13.2 million. The district attorney's office had a staff of 121 attorneys and a total operating budget of $30.9million.

* 1999 is the most recent year for which data was available.
** This data was collected from the district attorney and public defender offices and is current as of March, 2002.

How much are public defenders paid?

Public defenders' salaries vary, depending on the region of the country and whether they are working for the federal, state or county government.*

For example, a federal public defender in Atlanta, Georgia, makes between $42,000 and $157,000 a year, while a state of California public defender in Los Angeles makes between $38,000 and $86,000 a year.

A public defender in the county of Alameda, California, makes anywhere from $52,000 to $138,000. While entry-level prosecuting attorneys in that same county also start out at roughly $52,000 a year, their salaries can grow to $169,000, up to $30,000 a year more than what their senior public-defender counterparts would make.

Public defender salaries in Kentucky start at roughly $23,000, 30 percent less than what they are in neighboring states.

* Sources: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts; National Journal Staff Interviews; Salaries current as of Aug. 1, 2000; Office of the Public Defender, Commonwealth of Kentucky Legislative Update, No. 4, 1999


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