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A Public Defender is a position established at the federal, state, county, or local level of government to provide legal representation to defendants who face incarceration and cannot afford an attorney. The U.S. Constitution guarantees individuals the right to have an attorney, regardless of financial means. Many jurisdictions have instituted Public Defender Offices in order to ensure the right to an attorney.
The American Bar Association, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and several other professional organizations have established professional guidelines for indigent defense services. The guidelines consist of standards and practices to ensure that indigent defense services are independent from interference and that defendants receive timely and quality representation.
In addition to representing indigent defendants, Public Defenders may also provide legal services to juveniles in juvenile delinquency proceedings. In addition, Public Defenders commonly represent individuals involved in mental health proceedings, conservatorship proceedings, or whose mental capacity is challenged.
Federal Public Defenders are organized by U.S. Districts under the judicial branch of government. However, Chief Federal Public Defenders are appointed by the court of appeals rather than by the U.S. Districts. This is intended to provide the Federal Public Defender with some insulation from the District Court. Federal Public Defenders are appointed to four-year terms.
State Public Defender Offices may be led by an appointed or elected Public Defender. Their offices are established as independent agencies in order to allow them to operate with minimal influence from other agencies, though many states also have Public Defender Commissions that direct policy. Many State Public Defender Offices utilize a combination of staff attorneys and appointed private practice attorneys. Approximately half of the states use a county-based system for Public Defenders, funded by a combination of state and county resources.
At the local level, many larger cities have established Public Defender Offices. These offices generally serve individuals who are accused of violations of municipal ordinances or misdemeanors, while felonies are referred to the county or state.