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National Survey of Indigent Defense Systems

Stock Photo of Courthouse Exterior with Ionic Columns
Documenting how counsel is provided to indigent defendants across the U.S.
  • Client
    Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)
  • Dates

Sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the 2012 National Survey of Indigent Defense Systems (NSIDS) gathered data about the manner by which defense services were provided to indigent people accused of crimes for which they may be jailed or imprisoned under states' laws in each county and state throughout the United States. Emphasis was placed on collecting information pertaining to office expenditures and the number and type of cases handled as well as size and salaries of indigent defense staff.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has mandated that the states provide counsel for indigent persons accused of crime, documentation on the nature of these services was not readily available. States devised various systems, rules of organization, and funding mechanisms for indigent defense systems. In essence, each state adopted its own approach for providing counsel to indigent defendants. The administration of adult trial-level indigent defense services varies by jurisdiction and may be carried out by a state, a county, a city, an individual judge, or by every possible combination of these. And just as administration of services varies by jurisdiction, so too does the source of funds to provide those services. Furthermore, each jurisdiction (whether state, county, city, or individual judge) determines the delivery method by which it provides representation. 

This project was the first of its kind to collect census-level information on all forms of indigent programs, including public defender offices, legal aid programs, and systems that provide indigent defense through either contractual agreements with private law firms or the assignment of private counsel. NORC along with its partners, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) and the National Association of Counties (NACo), developed an accurate and comprehensive universe of respondents and collected the data using a multi-mode design that applied web, mail, and phone administration.

Findings from this project were used throughout the criminal justice community to better understand the nature of indigent defense services operating across the United States.

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