The 6th Amendment of the United States Constitution ensures every criminal defendant the right to be defended by a lawyer. In 1963, Public Defenders were made available to criminal defendants who could not afford a lawyer to represent them.
In 1963, starting with the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants who could not afford a lawyer were entitled to free legal representation.
A Public Defender is a licensed lawyer of the Public Defender’s Office, a government-funded agency, representing criminal defendants who could not afford a lawyer. The government pays them. All Public Defenders are familiar with the court system within their area because most of their time is spent appearing in court and negotiating with prosecutors.
All criminal defendants have the right to a court-appointed lawyer but do not have the right to choose a court-appointed lawyer of their choice. The court is tasked to appoint the Public Defender’s Office (PDO) to represent an indigent criminal defendant, and in turn, the PDO appoints a Public Defendant to handle the case.
An appointed Public Defender assists a criminal defendant during court proceedings when he cannot afford to be represented by a private lawyer. He works for the criminal defendant for free. His main job is to:
• Researches applicable federal and state laws about the defendant's case
• Provides relevant legal advice to the criminal defendant.
• Arguing the defendant’s case in court
A court-appointed Public Defender is usually reserved for criminal defendants whose case merits imprisonment.
Other than being free of charge, another advantage is that Public Defenders always appear in the same court with the same judge each day; therefore, they are is already familiar with everything about the local law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges. These work to the advantage of the criminal defendant. Public Prosecutors are as competent as their counterpart Private Lawyers.
Public Defenders are committed to getting an acquittal for their clients and having access to resources that may not be readily available to private lawyers. However, Public Defenders may not be a perfect fit for the accused in terms of personal goals, preferences, and needs.
Public Defenders, though, have a significant handicap. While the mandate of the PDO, in theory, works exceptionally well, it works on a tight budget, and there are a lot of indigents in need of Public Defenders. It can be challenging for even the most skilled Public Defender to balance the nuances and needs of all their clients.
From the criminal defendant's point of view, they do not have the liberty to pick the Public Defender of their choice. If an accused does not trust their Public Defender, they may be out of luck.
Notwithstanding, a Public Defender is the best thing that could ever happen to an indigent criminal defendant.
The Federal Public Defender Offices hire most Public Defenders. They usually come from large private firms, or local or state Public Defender Organizations. Experiences and skills are essential qualifications for Public Defenders.
Public Defenders often handle complex criminal cases; thus, it is vital that they first go through summer and full-time positions in a Public Defender Office. Picking a court-appointed Public Defender for a Public Defender goes through this process:
• When a criminal defendant is accused, the judge will give them an opportunity to request a court-appointed lawyer.
• The indigent criminal defendant needs to prove to the court that he cannot afford a private lawyer. He will then be asked, under oath, to fill up a questionnaire.
• Should they qualify, the judge will then assign to him a Public Defender. If no Public Defender is available, they will be assigned a private lawyer who will still be paid by the government.
It is the Public Defender's responsibility to defend his indigent client to the best of their ability.
A Public Defender can work for a local, state, or federal Public Defender’s Office. It can be stressful to be a Public Defender because of the long hours of research, preparation, and court appearances.
If you want to become a Public Defender, you should have completed a law degree, passed the state bar exam, admitted to the state bar association in the jurisdiction where he chooses to practice law.
Some law schools allow students to focus on criminal law. The concentration on criminal law enables you to get a comprehensive knowledge of criminal litigation practices. Courses concentrate on evidence, capital punishment, jury instructions, jurisprudence, and federal criminal law.
To further qualify as a Public Defender, you should complete a Public Defender Internship. Many law schools allow students in their 2nd and 3rd year of law studies to complete their internship in Public Defender Offices (local, state, or federal). This will give aspiring Public Defenders their much-needed work experience.
Once you are a full-pledge lawyer of the U.S., you can apply at any state, county, or federal Public Defender's Office. PDOs often hire both fresh graduates and experienced lawyers. They usually look for lawyers interested in working with the indigent and poor, juveniles, mentally ill, and chemically dependent clients.
Being a Public Defender offers a lot of self-gratification. However, before thinking about being a Public Defender, you need to ask yourself specific questions:
Although some individuals charged with a criminal offense are not guilty, most of them have indeed committed a crime.
Some clients you have to defend may include individuals who may have only exercised poor judgment and broke the law to those who made conscious decisions to commit a crime. Client interactions can range from conducting short client interviews to finding witnesses, visiting unfamiliar neighborhoods, and sometimes acting as a social worker.
In some jurisdictions, the defense attorney or the Public Defendant is the only one standing up for the criminal defendant in court. It may look like the justice system is biased against the defense.
Aspiring Public Defenders should focus on law schools that have criminal law clinics. Law schools with defense attorneys and former prosecutors offer would-be Public Defenders with a solid foundation in criminal law.
Some law schools do not have criminal law clinics. Instead, they have co-op or externship programs wherein you will have to work in a Public Defender’s Office for at least a semester.
A Co-op program at reputable Public Defenders agencies is often preferred than externships. Both, however, offer equal merits on many significant levels. Many Public Defenders are products of a co-op program.
A Faculty-sponsored program is also another alternative to a criminal law clinic. This involves some members of the law school faculty mentoring law students who want to pursue a career as a Public Defender.
What then are some of the best Public Defender law schools in the U.S.?
Cambridge University counts Chief Justice John Robert as well as former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama as its most famous alumni.
The Harvard Law School always has a top spot in most listings of the Best Law Schools in the United States. The Criminal Justice Institute (CJI) of the Harvard Law School is one of the 7 Study Programs law students can take.
CJI courses cover the sociology of crime and punishment, policymaking and research, and litigation. Third-year law students can join the clinical education program where they can handle real cases under the supervision of their law professors.
These criminal law clinics allow CJI law students to represent juveniles and adults accused of crimes in court, such as misdemeanors and felonies.
The Harvard Law School also has law clinics in criminal justice, including criminal prosecutions, war crime prosecutions, and the death penalty with government lawyers as prosecutors.
The Yale Law School is within the Yale University, a private Ivy League research institution and the third oldest University for higher education in the United States.
Most Yale law students prefer to spend their summers working for a Criminal Defense Office to gain significant trial experience, handle stimulating cases, and offer some relevant public service.
Many Yale Law School alumni opt to specialize in criminal defense, and the Public Defender's Office is one of their most likely employers.
Most local Public Defender's offices hire fresh law school graduates, but they require at least a clinical experience or a summer in a Criminal Defense Office.
The faculty-sponsored organization, the defenders of the University of Michigan Law School, was designed to help law students determine if being a Public Defender is the right career path for you.
The organization trains would-be Public Defenders with the needed skills to succeed in this field. The organization also connects their law students with University of Michigan alumni who are currently practicing Public Defenders so they can offer some helpful resources.
This law school also connects their law students and alumni who are interested in being Public Defenders with Public Defender Officers who are searching for Public Defenders.
The Stanford Law School is within Stanford University, a private research institution. Within the Stanford Law School is "The Stanford Three Strikes Project," one of the 11 Mills Legal Clinics at the law school that provides legal representation to convicted criminals serving life sentences under the Three Strikes Law in California for committing non-violent and minor felonies.
The Stanford Three Strikes Project allows law students to represent clients in state and federal courts under clinic instructors' supervision.
The Stanford Law School also has the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, a policy and research institute dedicated to issues pertinent to the criminal justice system. The Stanford Criminal Justice Center focuses its efforts on policy research for the consumption of the public sector.
The Stanford Criminal Justice Center also provides pedagogical opportunities to law school students of the University interested in crime policy and criminal law.
First-year law students of Stanford University complete curriculums in legal research, criminal law, constitutional law, and contracts. Second and third-year law students with inclinations in criminal law can take courses at the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
The Stanford Criminal Justice Center offers courses focusing on investigation, adjudication, juvenile crime, mass incarceration, sentencing, correction, and white-collar crime.
The Mills Legal Clinic at Stanford University allows law students to practice their legal skills in any of the eleven clinics, catering to select areas of law specialization. If you intend to pursue a career as a Public Defender, you can enroll in courses focusing on life-sentenced criminals, criminal prosecution, Supreme Court litigation, and immigrant rights.
The Cornell University Law School has dozens of clinics, two of which are the Prosecution Clinic and the Criminal Defense Clinic. The University also has a criminal defense trial clinic where law students can gain experience defending criminal defendants.
The law students are tasked to do client interviews, case research, witness preparation, negotiating with the district attorney’s office, and appearing in court. These give the law students some experience if they want to be Public Defenders.
The Albany Law School is one of the top law schools in the U.S. that prepare students for careers with the public interest, the government, including such jobs as public defenders.
The Albany Law School is the top three law schools for Public Defenders in the U.S. Its alumni include two former U.S. Supreme Court judges, William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States well as numerous public servants, and sitting judges.
The Justice Center at Albany Law School's Family Violence Litigation Clinic, Community Economic Development Clinic, Domestic Violence Prosecution Hybrid Clinic, Health Law Clinic, and many pro bono programs have allowed their law students to help numerous clients.
Through these programs, The Albany Law School students acquire basic courtroom skills that can prepare them for a public defender career.
There are over 2.5 million Americans presently behind bars in the U.S., the highest inmate rate in the world. This high level of mass imprisonment has brought significant consequences to the imprisoned individual, their families, and society in general.
The U.S. justice system needs to roll in an impartial and equitable manner. It is the defense counsel's responsibility – a private attorney or a Public Defender to provide adequate representation for the criminal defendant all through the criminal process to ensure all accused are given a fair trial.
The law school you attend plays a considerable role in your career path. Public Defense Offices often hire fresh law graduates to be Public Defenders, provided they have experience in criminal law through the law school's criminal law clinics.
If you want to pursue a career as a Public Defender, choose a law school with dependable criminal law clinics.