Gideon at 60: A Snapshot of State Public Defense Systems and Paths To System Reform

In 1963, Gideon v. Wainwright established the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel for indigent persons charged with felonies, which would later extend to misdemeanors and delinquency proceedings in juvenile court. However, the Supreme Court did not establish a process for the administration, funding, or oversight of public defense. As a result, multiple models were created nationwide. This joint report by the National Institute of Justice and the Office for Access to Justice presents findings from a review of the current public defense models across multiple jurisdictions and interviews with stakeholders in the criminal legal system. It highlights how court-appointed attorney fees are a barrier for poor people accessing counsel. The authors also make recommendations for structuring effective public defense systems. 

You can read the full text here

Key Findings:

  • Most states impose fees on people who receive appointed counsel.
  • American Indians prosecuted in tribal courts only have the right to counsel at their own expense.
  • Of the federally recognized tribes, less than half have tribal courts, and 39 percent do not have a tribal public defender or defense office.


  • Do not allow upfront assessments of application fees for counsel.
  • The office for indigent defense should administer a screening process for indigency rather than judges.
Marea Beeman, J.D. and Claire Buetow, J.D.
National Institute of Justice and U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice