In 1963, the Supreme Court of the United States held that criminal defendants have the constitutional right to counsel, regardless of whether they can afford one, in the famous case of Gideon v. Wainwright. However, statistics, as well as public defense attorneys, reveal that the Supreme Court’s decision has yet to be fulfilled. Part of the problem is due to the system of mass incarceration in the United States. In 2013, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that the prison population reached 2.3 million individuals, compared to the 217,000 inmates imprisoned when Gideon was decided. The American Bar Association estimates that between 60 to 90 percent of criminal defendants cannot afford a lawyer, and must rely on public criminal defense services.

Even though there has been an exceptional rate of criminalization and growth in the prison system population, funding for public defenders remains inadequate and meager compared to prosecution offices. In 2007, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), determined that state and local public defender offices’ budgets were merely $2.3 billion, compared to prosecutor offices’ budgets that were approximately $5.8 billion. BJS further concluded that only 27 percent of county-based public defender offices have an adequate number of attorneys to effectively manage their caseloads.

This has real consequences for defendants. “Numerous studies that stretch from the 1980s to recent years show that public defenders meet with clients less quickly, file fewer motions, plea-bargain more often, and get charges dismissed less often than private attorneys.” However, since politicians receive little incentive from voters to reform the public defense system and increase public defender offices’ funding, these deficits continue to persist in jurisdictions. The absence of a political upside for lawmakers to increase funding may be the reason why Governor Cuomo of New York vetoed Bill S.8114/A.10706, a criminal justice reform bill that would have required New York State, rather than the individual counties, to provide funding for public defender office.