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North Carolina General Assembly Recognizes 50 Years of Public Defense in North Carolina

A group of North Carolina public defenders met with members of the North Carolina General Assembly at the North Carolina Legislative Building in Raleigh today to mark the 50th anniversary of public defense in North Carolina.  

Representative Pricey Harrison introduced a statement and made remarks about the history and public benefit of creating the Guilford County Public Defender Office, which was the first to be established in the state. Her remarks included comments about the first chief public defender, Wally Harrelson. Other legislators echoed her sentiments regarding the benefits for the public to have public defender offices in their districts. 

“The right to counsel is guaranteed by the United States and North Carolina Constitutions and North Carolina law,” said Mary Pollard, excutive director of the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services (IDS). “In order to keep our court system functioning as fairly and as efficiently as possible, we should ensure that the public defense community has the basic resources it needs to represent clients well and to resolve cases justly.”

Milestones in Public Defense in North Carolina

1963 – In Gideon v. Wainwright, the United States Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right to the appointment of counsel for felony charges in state courts, and later Supreme Court decisions extended the right to counsel.

1969 – The North Carolina General Assembly established public defender offices in the 12th and 18th Judicial Districts as of January 1, 1970.

1971 – A study of public defender systems, a review by the Virginia State Bar Board of Governors of the new North Carolina public defender offices, revealed positive impacts.

1973 – A public defender office was instituted in Buncombe County.

1975 – Legislation creating public defender offices in Judicial Districts 26 and 27 (later 27A, Gaston County) was passed. The first Public Defender Conference was held in Atlantic Beach.

1981 – A public defender office was created in the then-District 3 (later the Pitt and Carteret County Offices). In the same year, the legislature also created the Office of the Appellate Defender.

1983 to 1990 – The creation of four public defender offices followed in Districts 15B (Orange and Chatham counties), 16A (Scotland and Hoke counties), 16B (Robeson County) and 14 (Durham County). 

1991 – The General Assembly required the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to compare the expenditures on private assigned counsel (PAC) in Districts 4A, 5 and 10 between May 1991 and April 1992 to what it would have cost to have public defender offices there, with the explicit legislative intent of implementing an office in any of those jurisdictions where it would save money.

1999 – Office of the Capital Defender was initiated as a pilot program within the Office of the Appellate Defender.

2000 – The Commission on Indigent Defense Services and the Office of Indigent Defense Services (collectively referred to as “IDS”) were established and given responsibility for the provision of indigent representation, including defender offices.

Since 2001 – IDS has overseen the implementation of five new legislatively created public defender offices covering Districts 21 (Forsyth County), 1 (Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Pasquotank, and Perquimans counties), 10 (Wake County), 29A (McDowell and Rutherford counties), 29B (Henderson, Polk, and Transylvania counties), 5 (New Hanover County), and 29A (McDowell and Rutherford), and the expansion of the Carteret County Office into the entire judicial district, covering the additional counties of Craven and Pamlico. IDS has additionally separated the Office of the Capital Defender into its own entity and, at the request of local officials, expanded the First District Public Defender Office to cover the Second District as a regional office.

Today – In addition to the statewide defender offices, 17 public defender offices presently serve 35 counties in 18 judicial districts. The offices employ slightly over 275 assistant public defenders and handle around a third of the indigent cases in the state, covering a variety of case types including adult criminal capital and non-capital; juvenile delinquency; abuse, neglect, dependency, and termination of parental rights; involuntary commitment; child support contempt; specialized treatment courts; and others.