Mission and Purpose
It is the mission of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia (PDS) to provide and promote quality legal representation to indigent adults and children facing a loss of liberty in the District of Columbia, thereby protecting society's interest in the fair administration of justice.
For more than 60 years, PDS has led the nation in providing exceptional advocacy and legal representation for indigent adults and children. Judges and prosecutors, as well as public defender agencies and state bar associations across the country, acknowledge and respect the outstanding work of PDS’s attorneys. PDS is recognized as one of the few defender organizations in the world to meet the standards outlined in the American Bar Association’s Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System.
PDS is a federally funded, independent organization governed by an 11-member board of trustees. Founded as the Legal Aid Agency in 1960, PDS was established as the successor to LAA in 1970 by a federal statute enacted to comply with the constitutional mandate to provide defense counsel for people who cannot afford an attorney.
A major portion of the work of PDS consists of representing individuals in the District of Columbia’s local criminal legal system who are charged with committing serious criminal acts and who are eligible for court-appointed counsel. In the District of Columbia, public defense services are provided primarily by PDS (the “institutional defender”) and a panel of private attorneys, known as Criminal Justice Act (CJA) attorneys, who are screened for membership on the panel and paid on a case-by-case basis by the D.C. courts. Because of its better resources, well-regarded training program, and overall higher skill level, PDS generally handles the more serious criminal cases, and CJA attorneys generally handle the less serious cases. The federal public defender system is modeled in most respects on this structure.
PDS also provides legal representation to people facing involuntary civil commitment in the mental health system, as well as to many children in the most serious delinquency cases, including children who have special education needs as a result of learning disabilities. Every year, PDS attorneys represent clients in the majority of the most serious adult felony cases filed in D.C. Superior Court, clients pursuing or defending against criminal appeals, nearly all individuals facing supervised release or parole revocation under the D.C. Code, and all defendants in D.C. Superior Court requiring representation at Drug Court sanctions hearings. In addition, PDS provides technical assistance to the local criminal legal system, training for CJA and pro bono attorneys, and additional legal services to clients in accordance with PDS’s enabling statute. On occasion and under special circumstances—for example, pursuing impact litigation—PDS represents clients in cases related to the above matters in the District’s federal courts.
The National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997 (the Revitalization Act), enacted by Congress, relieved the District of Columbia of certain “state-level” financial responsibilities and restructured a number of criminal legal system functions, including representation for indigent individuals. The Revitalization Act instituted a process by which PDS submitted its budget to Congress and received its appropriation as an administrative transfer of federal funds through the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency appropriation. With the passage of fiscal year 2007 appropriations, PDS began receiving a direct appropriation from Congress. That direct funding continues to this day. In accordance with its enabling statute and the Constitution, PDS remains a fully independent organization and does not fall under the administrative, program, or budget authority of any federal or local executive branch agency.
Since its creation, PDS has maintained a reputation nationally and in the District of Columbia criminal legal system for exceptional advocacy. The strength of PDS has always been the quality of the legal services that the organization delivers. Judges, panel attorneys, prosecutors, and especially clients acknowledge and respect the excellent advocacy of PDS’s attorneys, as do public defender agencies and state bar associations across the nation.
Key highlights in our proud history as a model institutional defender organization:
- Launching the first systemic effort in the nation to help public defenders develop rehabilitative services for their clients. The project incorporates the specialized skills of forensic social workers to investigate and write presentencing reports and refer clients to social and health services.
- Implementing a renowned intensive training program to prepare lawyers for the courtroom and the responsibilities of a public defender.
- Creating the first public defender program to provide legal services to D.C. prisoners that address criminal law-related problems, institutional administrative matters, and civil matters by referral to organizations. The program later expanded to serve as the PDS liaison to individuals convicted of D.C. Code offenses and held in correctional facilities throughout the country and to provide information to assist these individuals and monitor their conditions of incarceration.
- Establishing an office in a prison for juveniles that represents children at institutional disciplinary hearings at the District’s youth detention centers—one of the first public defender programs in a juvenile penal institution.
- Creating the successful Community Defender Division to provide information, referrals, and quality legal services for committed youth and adults who are in the post-adjudication stage of a criminal case in the District of Columbia’s justice system.
- Developing forensic expertise and establishing the PDS Forensic Practice Group, (FPG) a dedicated group of PDS lawyers who learn and train on matters of forensic science in the courtroom. The FPG was implemented to address the increasing number of cases involving forensic science in the District of Columbia and across the nation, and the need for court-appointed defense attorneys to become skilled in using this science in the courtroom — a daunting challenge given the degree of technical difficulty inherent in scientific matters.
- Implementing a Duty Day Program, a program to respond to telephone and walk-in requests for assistance by the public and criminal justice practitioners regarding legal matters, to include social services, parole, and mental health matters, thereby involving the staff and expertise of its legal and legal support services divisions.
- Creating a state-of-the-art case tracking software, Atticus, to provide comprehensive case management functionality, allowing case-related information on each client to be shared across the organization.
- Securing exonerations and proving the innocence of PDS clients for offenses they did not commit, ultimately triggering a broad, ongoing federal review of convictions based on hair and fiber evidence.