All data for each jurisdiction is current as of 2013, unless otherwise noted.
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The Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution require that a person who is accused of an offense that carries jail as a possible punishment and who cannot afford to hire his own attorney is entitled, in both federal and state courts, to have an attorney provided at government expense to defend him against that prosecution.1 The United States Supreme Court said this is a state obligation, but left it to each state to decide how to carry out the provision of the constitutional right to counsel. As a result, America does not have a unified public defense system; rather, every state has its own unique system and no two states look exactly alike.
In some states, the provision of the right to counsel is overseen at the state level. In other states, the right to counsel is provided on a county-by-county or even town-by-town level. In many states, the right to counsel is a combined effort of state and local governments. The Supreme Court has never directly considered whether it is unconstitutional for a state to delegate its right to counsel responsibilities to its counties and cities, but where a state chooses to so delegate, the state must guarantee that local governments are not only capable of providing adequate representation but that they are in fact doing so.
Because citizens, policy makers, and actors in the criminal justice system intend to follow the law, it is tempting to assume that every jurisdiction is fulfilling its Sixth Amendment right to counsel obligations. Unfortunately, this is not so. Many states, counties, and municipalities have deficiencies in their right to counsel systems that prevent people from receiving the effective assistance of counsel that is guaranteed by the federal constitution. Meanwhile, some jurisdictions provide even greater protection than the federal constitution requires, through state constitutions, statutes, policies, and standards.
The Sixth Amendment Center is dedicated to providing as much information on the right to counsel as possible, so that all of those who are involved in making and carrying out policies to ensure the right to counsel have accurate information upon which to base their decisions, and so that residents, taxpayers, and voters can be informed. We provide the facts about how the right to counsel is carried out in each state, updating that information as frequently as possible. To learn about the right to counsel in a particular state, click on the name of the state in the States section below.
District of Columbia
Northern Mariana Islands