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Mission & 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.

“Strongest public defense system in the country, maybe the world.”
By Norman Lefstein, Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and former PDS Director

PDS is a federally funded, independent organization governed by an eleven-member Board of Trustees. Originally operating as the Legal Aid Agency from 1960 to 1970, PDS was created in 1970 by a federal statute enacted to comply with a constitutional mandate to provide defense counsel for people who cannot afford an attorney.  

A major portion of the work we do consists of representing individuals in the District of Columbia’s local criminal justice 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 primarily provided by PDS, the “institutional defender,” and by 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 District of Columbia courts.  Because of its resources, well-regarded training program, and overall skill level, PDS generally handles the more serious criminal cases, and the CJA attorneys generally handle the less serious criminal cases.

PDS attorneys represent indigent clients in the majority of the most serious adult felony cases filed in the District of Columbia Superior Court every year, clients pursuing or defending against criminal appeals, nearly all individuals facing parole revocation under the District of Columbia Code, and all defendants in the District of Columbia Superior Court requiring representation at Drug Court sanctions hearings.  PDS also provides legal representation to people facing involuntary civil commitment in the mental health system, as well as to many of the indigent children in the most serious delinquency cases, including those who have special education needs due to learning disabilities.

In addition, PDS addresses the legal issues and barriers related to the successful community reentry of our clients.  PDS also provides technical assistance to the local criminal justice system, training for CJA and pro bono attorneys, and additional legal services to indigent clients in accordance with PDS’s enabling statute (Pub. L. No.  91-358, Title III, § 301 (1970); see also D.C. Code §§ 2-1601 – 1608 (2001).).

PDS provides its exceptional legal service through seven legal divisions: Trial, Appellate, Mental Health, Special Litigation, Parole, Civil Legal Services, and Community Defender.  The successful work of these legal divisions is supported by the Investigations Division, the Office of Rehabilitation and Development, the Defender Services Office, and administrative support.