• Nilima

If They Are Free, How Do Public Defenders Get Paid?

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

Are public defenders’ services really free?


To anyone who ever had the misfortune of being tangled up in a crime and is unable to pay for his or her own legal representation and defense already knows too well about public defenders. As the Miranda Rights would say to the accused: “…You have a right to an attorney.


If you live in Sacramento, and you cannot afford a Sacramento criminal defense attorney, one will be appointed for you” you are entitled to have just and fair legal representation even if you cannot afford the services of one.


According to the Sixth Amendment, the government cannot prosecute a person without legal representation by a bar registered attorney, if you cannot afford it, the government is obligated to pay for one for you.


In these cases, most likely the one who will be appointed to an accused is a public defender to represent your legal defense in the courts. These public defenders are free of charge, meaning you will not have to pay them a regular attorney's hourly rate.


They may be free for you but they are not technically free


Just because you did not pay for their services does not mean they will not earn a penny from defending you legally in the courts. Public defenders, after all, are still attorneys who probably spent a fortune in law school to be able to practice law legally.


They also spent a large chunk of their lifetimes studying to be able to have the privilege of practicing law by becoming a licensed lawyer. With this said, these attorneys will most probably not agree to work for free especially with everything they have gone through. After all, I bet nobody wants to work for absolutely free even if it is for the greater cause of helping those in need.


So who is paying them?


Public defenders are employed by the government on the national or federal level or state level down to the local level through a public defender’s office. This means that whatever type and severity and scale of crime an individual has committed if he cannot afford legal representation for himself the government will be able to appoint him one.


Although when the crime committed crosses state lines, the US government has the option to appoint a public defender or a panel-appointed x and the government reimburses them the expenses. So, in the simplest essence, public defenders are paid by the government with taxpayer’s money.



They are paid on my tax dollars?


Yes, and while some people may rebuke the idea, which is understandable, why would one pay for a service he does not need after all. Take comfort in the knowledge that the work these public defenders do is of utmost importance in keeping the balance between the rich and poor.


These public defenders may be the only thing that is standing between harmonious and equitable living to an utter dystopia of corporatism. The system that has been put into place certainly works and disrupting the system would probably result in a chaos of unforeseen magnitude. So yeah, they are paid on your tax dollars.


Is there any difference between a federal public defender to county public defenders?


The short answer would be yes, of course. Without getting into details, generally, federal public defenders are paid more than their county counterparts. Federal public defenders have to deal with cases on a grander scale often spanning several state lines.


These types of cases are not only harder to defend but also take longer due to more number of people involved which means more people to cross-examine, more people to be put on the stand which ultimately, takes more time to resolve.


Additionally, seniority plays a big part in how much public defenders are paid. Entry-level public defenders or those with up to four years of experience are considered paid less than senior-level public defenders or those who have twenty-plus years of experience or someone with a supervisory position over other public defenders.


How are they paid?


Public defenders are employed by the public defender's office that functions just like a government body this means that public defenders are paid on a monthly salary.


This system of salary payment for public defenders assures that public defenders would not drag on cases as it would happen if public defenders are paid hourly and would not rush cases as it would happen if they paid per case resolved.


This system ensures that every legally indigent people would get fair and just legal representation and defense and not just some hodgepodge of legal defense public defenders would concoct if they are paid in some other way.


Do they earn less than their private counterparts?


As with all industries, the public sector is paid less than its private counterparts. Although this pay difference that exists between the two is considerably smaller than most other industries. This is so that attorneys will not be discouraged as much in pursuing a career with the public sector and prevent all attorneys from choosing a private practice career.


If the pay difference is any larger, the government would be unable to defend its legally indigent population leading to the probable abuse of power of those who can afford to be legally represented and defended in the courts.


Although depending on the state the pay difference may be larger than the average. This is evident in states or cities that are primarily the financial sector of the area. On the other side of the coin, this pay difference may be smaller than the average. This is seen primarily in states where there are few attorneys and lawyers such as South Dakota, South Carolina, and Arizona.


Is public defenders’ legal service better than private attorneys?


While it is hard to generalize, one may naturally think that the higher-paid private-sector lawyers would provide a more robust legal defense for their clients but a study done by a veritable news source shows that public defenders are equally competent and, in fact, have a higher win rate on their cases. This may be due to the fact that public defenders are paid a monthly salary instead of the hourly rate wages private attorneys enjoy.


Private sector attorneys tend to drag out cases so they can reap more of that sweet sweet dollars. Getting paid on a monthly salary means that public defenders get more things done in less time which, as with all other industries, usually equates to being more productive which in turn consequently results in cases won.


So who’s better at doing their jobs?


Contrary to a very popular belief, public defenders are highly respected in the field. This is because of public defenders' mastery of every criminal law that exists. Other lawyers look up to public defenders simply because they know more than your average lawyers and attorneys.


Often they would seek free consultation with the highly respected public defender when it comes to criminal law. Public defenders are also required by the constitution to undertake specialized training yearly to keep them up-to-date. They are also required to take some additional educational units on criminal law now and then to keep them competent. Also, newly hired public defenders are put on trial advocacy to shore up their experience faster.


Is a public defender's pay proportional to the amount of work?


Sadly, in this regard, no it is not proportional. Public defenders are shown to be some of the overworked career paths there are. They come to the same courthouse every day, to defend, to arraign, to hear bail, or to hear sentencing and still have to study for other cases on his after work hours.


One public defender exposed that a single public defender may be in charge of upwards of 40 clients at a time all of which require 70+ hours of legal attention each. This fact is what dissuades most attorneys from pursuing a career being a public defender, this and the relatively smaller pay than being in a private firm.


Do the long hours and low pay make more public defenders leave legal practice prematurely?


No. This is another misconception about public defenders. The national average length of service for public defenders is a lengthy ten years with a majority of them putting in service for quite much longer.


Public defenders genuinely love putting in the work defending the people who cannot get legal representation hence is the reason most people who enter public defender practice continue doing what they are doing for the good of the public with some entering the legal practice as public defenders and retiring legal practice still at the same public defender’s office.


Does a public defender specialization affect how much he is paid?


Yes, the more specialization a public defender has the more clients he can help with warranting higher pay. Although public defenders are already highly trained enough pursuing further specializations would result in the public defender climbing up the ladder to senior position levels further warranting the need to pay him more to keep him on the public defender's office payroll.

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