Indigent defense in the United States: An analysis of state frameworks for ensuring the effective assistance of counsel



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Many indigent defense systems across the country lack sufficient resources and the appropriate administrative and operational infrastructure to ensure effective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment. In fact, the literature indicates that many of the country’s indigent defense systems have been in a state of crisis since the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright solidified the right to counsel for poor criminal defendants over 50 years ago. Despite the well-documented nature of the problem and recommended solutions offered by the legal profession and panels of indigent defense experts, many indigent defense systems continue to struggle. Using a systematic qualitative analysis of court and government records, this dissertation sought to determine whether and to what extent each of the 50 states have adopted the recommendations from previous studies aimed at addressing the crisis. The dissertation further evaluated the relationship between the presence or absence of those components and legal challenges to the constitutionality of states’ indigent defense delivery systems. The data for the study were obtained from publicly available documents obtained using a combination of Internet searches, legal research, previous studies, and, where necessary, public information requests.
Findings of the study indicate that though most states have some of the recommended components examined, very few had all of them in place. The findings also suggest, however, that while all recommended indigent defense system components may be preferred, not all are as critical as others to ensuring effective assistance of counsel in day-to-day operations. However, states should be aware of which of the best practice components they do not have in place as well as the reasons they are lacking. Further, states should assess the need for change on their own terms since several states that have failed to do so have faced costly and protracted structural reform litigation that has forced them to do so. The results provide a comprehensive overview of the nation’s indigent defense systems that does not exist in the literature, but that is necessary to begin evaluating and addressing the causes of the indigent defense crisis that is well-documented in the literature.



Indigent defense, Right to counsel, Sixth amendment, Public defender, Effective assistance of counsel