Under the 6th Amendment of the Constitution, all defendants in criminal prosecutions have the right to assistance of counsel. However, minority and poor defendants often could not afford counsel leading to unfair trials. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled several times on the issue. In the famous 1932 case Powell v. Alabama, the Court ruled that states must provide attorneys for indigent defendants charged with capital crimes. In a later 1938 ruling on the Johnson v. Zerbst, attorneys had to be provided in all federal criminal cases. However, it was the well-known Gideon v. Wainright decision in 1963 which extended the right to counsel for all criminal offenses, beginning with petty crime and misdemeanor and ending with felonies. The Court believed that the right to counsel all defendants is a fundamental and essential right to ensure a fair trial.
In the current system for indigent defendants, the state and local governments typically provide attorneys with dedicated budgets. The assigned counsel system appoints an attorney ad hoc by the court or on a rotating basis by the administration. The three primary methods of providing legal representation are usually public defender programs which employ trained and salaried attorneys specifically for these cases, assigned counsel, or contract attorneys where the state may contract out private firms for the use of their attorneys in public courts. While the assigned attorneys do work for the state, they seek to represent the best interests of their clients and can significantly improve sentencing in comparison to cases where the right to counsel is declined.