If you are accused of a crime and face the possibility of going to jail you need a good lawyer to defend you. Private defense lawyers aren't cheap and most people can't afford one. The U.S. Constitution provides a criminal defendant with an attorney if you can't afford to hire your own. The court appointed lawyer works for free.

How Do I Get the Court to Appoint Me a Lawyer?

Usually, the first opportunity to ask the court to appoint a lawyer for you is at your first court appearance, the arraignment or bail hearing. The judge will ask you if you are represented by a lawyer and if you say you are not, the judge will ask if you want to apply for a court-appointed lawyer. If you want this, some courts appoint a lawyer for you right there and finish your arraignment; other courts delay your case and appoint a lawyer after reviewing and approving your economic circumstances.

How Do I Qualify for a Free Lawyer?

Each state or county makes its own rules as to who qualifies for a free lawyer. The judge also takes the seriousness of the crime into consideration. A wage-earner might afford representation for a minor crime but not for a crime involving a lengthy and complicated trial.

What if I Don't Qualify for a Free Lawyer but Can't Afford a Private Lawyer?

Many states will still provide you with a court-appointed lawyer. At the conclusion of the case the judge will require you to reimburse the state for the portion of the lawyer costs that you can afford.

What Are the Advantages in Getting a Public Defender to Represent Me?

Since most criminals can't afford their own defense lawyer, most states have a public defender's office. Public defender's appear daily in the same court with the same people, and they know valuable things about judges, prosecutors and local policemen. In states that don't have a public defender's office, the court maintains a list of local attorneys that they appoint on a rotating basis. 

Do I Get the Same Quality of Representation with a Public Defense Lawyer as a Regular Lawyer?

Public defenders often provide representation that is at least as competent as that provided by private attorneys. A 1992 study concluded that in the nine counties that were surveyed in the study, 76% of the public defender's clients were convicted compared to 74% for those represented by private lawyers. Sometimes though, public defenders have a heavy workload which can cut into their abilities to be effective.

Can I Get a Second Opinion on my Public Defender's Advice?

If you feel that your court-appointed attorney isn't representing you adequately, you can buy a short consultation with a private attorney. 

If I'm Not Happy with My Court Appointed Lawyer Can I Get a New One?

This is probably not possible. Defendants with public defense lawyers sometimes ask for new ones. The request is rarely granted by the judge because the defendant has to prove that the representation they have is truly incompetent.

What Can You Do if You are Accused of a Crime?

If you are accused of a crime, you should speak to a criminal lawyer immediately to learn more about your rights, your defenses and the complicated legal system.