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At a Glance (as of 2013)

Percentage of state funding: 10%
Percentage of local funding: 90%
Percentage of alternative funding: 0%
State commission: none
Branch of government: judicial


Structure & Funding of Indigent Defense Services

In 1976, the California legislature created the Office of the State Public Defender as part of the judicial branch of government. Unlike other states with statewide, state-funded public defender offices, California’s was originally designed as a state appellate defender office without any trial-related responsibilities. But SPD was defunded in the 1980s and now handles only a limited number of post-conviction death penalty cases each year.

This means that local government must shoulder the entire burden of providing trial-level public attorneys to the poor. For California’s more affluent counties, this has not proven to be a problem for the most part, and some of the most respected public defender offices and assigned counsel systems in the country are in California. San Mateo County, for example, has been recognized as having institutionalized the American Bar Association’s Ten Principles and for providing consistent, zealous advocacy on behalf of the clients they serve.


However, substantial state restrictions have been placed on California counties over the past 35 years making it difficult for less affluent counties to raise revenues. This, combined with the long list of county government responsibilities, makes it difficult for indigent defense services to rise to the top of the triage list in most of the California counties.

As opposed to trial-level indigent defense services, which are the responsibility of county governments in California, the representation of individuals in direct appeals and post-conviction proceedings, in both capital and non-capital cases, is a function of the California courts system with private attorneys handling the vast majority of direct services to clients. The state courts contract with a number of non-profit corporations to provide oversight and training on its behalf.

In death penalty matters, the non-profit California Appellate Project (CAP-SF) was established in San Francisco by the State Bar of California in 1983 as a resource center for private attorneys taking capital cases on direct appeal and onward through habeas corpus proceedings. CAP-SF operates under contract from the Judicial Council of California. The state of California supplemented CAP-SF in 1998 with the creation of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, an arm of the state courts that provides direct representation to individuals in death penalty habeas proceedings before the Supreme Court of California and the federal courts. HCRC also provides training and accreditation assistance for private attorneys looking to become qualified to handle appointments in capital post-conviction proceedings.

Appellate representation in non-capital cases is divided among the state’s six appellate districts, with direct services administered by one of the state’s six appellate projects: the First District Appellate Project, the California Appellate Project of Los Angeles, the Central California Appellate Program, Appellate Defenders Incorporated, and the Sixth District Appellate Program. Each of the appellate projects are non-profit law offices established shortly after the California Appellate Project to similarly qualify, training, and provide resource assistance to the panel of private lawyers handling appointments on behalf of indigent clients on direct appeal. Like the CAP-SF, each of the non-capital appellate projects operates under contract with the Court of Appeal it serves.

Statutory Authority

Cal. Gov. Code § 15400 through 15404 (state public defender); Cal. Gov. Code § 27700 through 27712 (county public defense); and Cal. Gov. Code § 68660 through 68665 (habeas corpus).

Source of data: original research conducted by Sixth Amendment Center staff, augmented by the American Bar Association, State, County and Local Expenditures for Indigent Defense Services: Fiscal Year 2008, November 2010.