Improving the Public Defender

The job of a public defender is an extremely difficult one. They are underpaid and overworked. They often get asked how they can defend people who are accused of committing crimes. Some put all their time and efforts into getting to know their clients only to see them get shipped off to prison. I have wanted to be an attorney for a long time. I have much admiration for the people that can be successful public defenders. After watching the film Gideon’s Army, I was inspired to write this blog post on how we can improve the public defender system in the United States and make sure that every person has adequate representation in court if need be.

One major deterrent from people wanting to become public defenders is the low pay rates that they receive given the amount of work that they do. They serve hundreds of clients at a time and do not receive proper compensation for this. Frankly, we get what we pay for. The public defense industry may not always attract the top attorneys in the field. Men and women in the peak earning years of their lives may choose to practice other kinds of law at private firms in order to provide more for their families. Increasing payment of public defenders would give them more incentive to work harder for their clients, and will attract the best and brightest of attorneys. This change comes from the voters. We must vote to increase the salaries of government officials whenever possible in order to maintain that the most fit people are in charge.

We also must make sure that public defenders are adequately trained to represent their clients and manage the workload that comes with the job. Efficient public defenders allow the trial process to move faster, thus speeding up the court system as a whole (Fabelo, 2016). This would allow public defenders to manage larger course loads as the cases would come and go at a greater rate of speed. It would also allow the justice system to increase in efficiency as well and would allow it to provide help and rehabilitation to those in need. This point comes with the selectivity of the public defender system. We need attorneys that are not only good at what they do, but are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to serve their clients.

The public defender is a very necessary edition to the judicial system. It allows for people who are unable to afford legal representation to attain that. However, we must make sure that those that represent these people are doing what is necessary to make the case run smoothly. There are ways to improve the system so that the smartest attorneys are present and are able to work efficiently to make sure that cases come and go in a quick manner. Their payment must be increased in order to attract these kinds of people. Being a public defender is a very admirable profession. It is not something that should be taken lightly and we should take the steps we can to improve the system.


Fabelo, T. (n.d.). What Policymakers Need to Know to Improve the Public Defense System.

Retrieved February 21, 2017, from

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4 Responses to Improving the Public Defender

  1. brendanfoley1 says:

    I completely agree that the public defender system is in need of improvement. The justice system is meant to uphold “innocence until proven guilty,” but in practice this is not the case. A vast majority of all people arrested for crimes plead guilty due to heavy pressure, underpaid, sub-optimal attorneys, and excessively long jail sentences before trial.
    I think a large part of the reason they are so underpaid and overworked is the way that public defenders are viewed by the average voter. It’s hard for politicians to drum up support for increased budget for public defenders when many people think of them as lawyers who are paid to keep criminals out of jail.
    I believe in order for the system to be improved, public opinion on criminals and the prison system needs to shift. There needs to be serious public awareness and political motivation for improving the justice system’s ability to fairly and speedily deliver justice.

  2. morgandick says:

    I cannot agree more with you when you say, “we get what we pay for”. I don’t think there is much dispute in the notion that public defenders are completely overworked and underpaid. Because the need for this role is so demanding, the job transforms into a quantity over quality position, which, in my opinion, should not be the case for attorneys at any level. The population of public defenders usually consists of young and hungry (aka just out of law school) attorneys who are willing to sacrifice pay, and who usually burnout within a few years. While I applaud the notion that we should increase the salaries of public defenders, I just do not see voters buying into that idea. Perhaps I am too cynical – look at minimum wage in AZ. Many people who are out of the political/judicial circles see public defenders has performing a necessary, and often useless task by defending criminals. While I see no problem taking the issue of salary to the voters, I have to wonder if it is worth wild. Would efforts to improve the quality of a public defense be better spent at the legislature, or even in law schools? The issue with public defenders is definitely one that will only continue to get worse as we put off a solution.

  3. bpclass17 says:

    I understand your argument about the difficult circumstances many public defenders face in their line of work. I empathize with them. The case load can be high, the pay low, and the clients difficult. High levels of employee attrition in many public defender systems speak to those circumstances of the job.

    On the other hand, I think the current public defender system achieves its public purpose and also has some secondary social benefits for the public defenders themselves. I tend to believe that market economics should govern the government’s recruiting and procurement processes.

    Allowing young and less experienced attorneys to launch their careers in a public defender’s office both helps them and helps society. It gives the attorneys practical job experience that they can transfer to their private or prosecutorial careers when they move on from the public defender role.

    Attrition is not always bad. Creating a talent pipeline is good. As long as there are enough lawyers willing to serve as public defenders for a period of time, governments may not need to increase compensation beyond the rate of inflation. However, one idea to help strengthen this talent pipeline is to streamline and improve the student loan forgiveness process.

  4. thoughtful32 says:

    I thought Gideon’s Army was a very insightful film to the lives of public defenders. The workload behind public defenders is heavy and I do agree that they do not get paid enough and that many will seek being hired at private law firms instead. Pay increase is an incentive for any job that would create more quality of work and stability in job placement. You suggested that we should vote to pay government officials more and this statement intrigued me. We don’t normally think public defenders are government officials but rather simply lawyers. They do work for the government and voters do have the power to change legislation as seen how the minimum wage in Arizona was just raised to $10. The issue that I see with that is that not all government officials are public defenders and have the best interest of the client at heart. As a voter, if I saw the words government official as opposed specifically to public defender I would not think the same way at all because the term government official is very broad and connects to sentiments people might about the government as an institution itself. I definitely agree with your second to last paragraph about public defenders having to be adequately trained to tend to their client and also efficiently speed up the legal process. I personally have come across public defenders who don’t go above and beyond for their clients because it’s just another case to the many they have. They do not put forth any effort, rather they set up plea deals and guide people towards a direction of imprisonment. However, public defenders are very necessary for in our judicial system, like you mentioned, due to money constraints. They provide a backbone to a human being and can either really attempt to help them or break them and I do believe more attention should be shifted toward public defenders and the importance of their role as defenders.

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