A public defender and client in court
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What Is a Public Defender and How Much Do They Make?

Danielle Letenyei - Author
By

Jan. 3 2023, Published 2:19 p.m. ET

If you get arrested and can’t afford an attorney to defend you, one will be appointed for you by the court. It’s part of the Miranda Rights that are read to you upon arrest. An attorney that the court appoints is called a public defender.

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Public defenders have the same training and licensing as private attorneys. The difference is the government pays them to defend people who can’t afford to pay for a private attorney. Private criminal attorneys can charge anywhere from $100 to over $300 an hour for representation in a criminal trial.

A public defender in court
Source: Getty Images
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How much does a public defender make?

Although using your law degree to become a public defender can be a noble profession, it also comes with a significant pay cut. According to Salary.com, the average salary for a public defender is between $51,920 and $65,143. Compare that to a private criminal defense lawyer who earns, on average, between $80,745 and $108,189.

Where are public defenders paid the most?

Public defenders can make more money depending on the state that they work in. For example, in California, public defenders can earn as much as $167,000 per year.

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Here are the five best states for public defenders based on the average annual salaries, according to Zippia.com:

  • California – $103,899

  • Alaska – $87,148

  • District of Columbia – $78,740

  • Oregon – $75,055

  • New Jersey – $74,058

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Salaries for public defenders can also vary depending on the city where they work. For example, in San Antonio, Texas, public defenders earn about $91,153 annually, while in El Paso, Texas, the average annual public defender salary is about $59,502, according to data from Indeed.com.

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How can registered public defenders increase their salary?

Public defenders may be able to increase their salary by moving into more of a leadership role, like a manager or supervisor. Another way to earn more as a public defender is to work in the U.S. Courts versus the city or county courts.

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Low pay is leading to a shortage of public defenders.

Low pay is causing a shortage of public defenders in states across the country as graduating law students opt for higher-paying gigs to help pay off the student debt they incurred while in law school. According to a 2020 survey by the American Bar Association (ABA), three-quarters of law school graduates have over $100,000 in debt, Law360.com reports.

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In Oregon, the shortage of public defenders has reached the crisis stage where judges dismiss cases because there aren’t public defenders available to represent defendants, reports Oregon Public Broadcasting. A study by the ABA found that Oregon has less than a third of the public defenders it needs, OPB reports.

“This is not a public defender crisis. This is a total public safety system failure,” Carl Macpherson, executive director for the nonprofit Metropolitan Public Defense, told OPB.

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