Public defenders provide a much-needed advocacy service in our legal system. Frequently, criminal defendants who are poor or unable to pay for legal services (indigent) need help to navigate the courts to receive a fair trial. A public defender is the best option available to them. One of the tenets of the legal system in the United States is that every person has a right to a fair trial. Having available a well-paid group of public advocates, therefore, is essential in assuring that right for all individuals, regardless of their financial situation.
The need for public defenders arose from the Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in
Gideon v. Wainwright, a Florida case that established the right to counsel for indigent
defendants. In this unanimous decision of 50 years ago, Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion. Interestingly, he reversed the Court’s decision in a similar case 20 years prior that he dissented in Betts v. Brady 316 U.S. 455 (1942).
Comparative Salaries of Public Sector and Public Interest Attorneys
A study conducted in 2010 makes clear the median income for attorneys involved in the public
sector at the entry level, 5 years and beyond 10 years. They are as follows:
Median Entry Level Income (2010):
1. Civil Legal Service Providers: $42,000
2. Local Prosecutors: $50,000
3. Public Interest Organizations: $47,500
4. Public Defenders, $45,000
Median Income at 5 Years (2010):
1. Civil Legal Service Providers: $49,440
2. Local Prosecutors: $62,320
3. Public Interest Organizations: $53,560
4. Public Defenders: $60,280
Median Income beyond 10 Years (2010):
1. Civil Legal Service Providers: $60,000
2. Local Prosecutors: $81,500
3. Public Interest Organizations: $70,875
4. Public Defenders: $76,160
It is interesting to note the disparity in median income between public defenders and local prosecutors. At entry level, public defenders make 10 percent less than local prosecutors; at the 5-year mark, the gap closes to a 3 percent difference in median income; beyond 10 years, the gap between public defenders and local prosecutors is 7 percent. As a reference, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, the
median pay of all attorneys in the U.S. (regardless of years of experience) is $112,760.
Why Public Defenders Should Be Paid More
The rate of pay for public defenders should be commensurate with, if not higher than, local prosecutors’; they presumably share similar workloads. The caseload amount for public defenders in many jurisdictions is so high, in fact, that it inhibits their ability to provide adequate counsel.
A recent 5-2 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court (Public Defender, Eleventh Judicial Circuit of
Florida, et al. vs. State of Florida, et al. (2013)) will allow attorneys in the Miami-Dade County public defender’s office to reject cases due to excessive workloads. This would be a significant blow to Gideon, particularly in its 50th anniversary, because it likely would reduce access for certain indigent persons thanks to an overwhelmed system.
Paying public defenders more would provide an incentive to attract more graduating law students and other lawyers to join the ranks of the public defender’s office. As the
11th Circuit Public Defender vs. State of Florida case pointed out, a Miami-Dade
County public defender may average a weekly case load of 50 felony cases; this works out to more than 2,600 cases a year per attorney.
Failing to close the gap between the salaries of public defense and local prosecution
(a difference of up to three times between the two) will only further the disparity between the
rights of the accused and the interests of the public.
Perry Garrett is a freelance writer who pens articles on a wide variety of legal issues such as Criminal Defense,
Traffic Offenses, Personal Injury, DUIs and others as well.
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