What are the financial qualifications to get a public defender in Colorado?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Dec 26, 2018 | 0 Comments

Colorado courts use a simple formula to determine whether a defendant is entitled to a Colorado public defender. First, they assign point values to a defendant's income, expenses, assets, and severity of the charges. If the total number of points add up to at least 150, the defendant gets a public defender. Otherwise, the defendant will not get a public defender.

A public defender is a government employee tasked with representing the following defendants who cannot afford their own attorneys:

  • people facing possible jail or prison time,
  • people who may lose custody of their child(ren), or
  • people who may be deported from the U.S.

Qualifying for a Public Defender in Colorado

In order to determine whether someone qualifies for a public defender, there are three pieces of information to know:

  1. the person's earnings,
  2. the person's expenses versus his/her income, and
  3. the severity of the criminal charge(s) and the person's assets

Step 1: Income

First, determine the defendant's monthly or annual gross household income and his/her family size. Then find where the household income number falls in the "income limit" chart below:

Public defender

If the household earnings fall at or below the income limit, the defendant gets 150 points.

If the household income falls between the income limit and up to and including the income limit plus 10%, then the defendant gets 100 points.

Otherwise, the defendant gets no points.

Note that defendants with household earnings greater than the income limit plus 75% are automatically disqualified from getting a public defender.

Also note that income categories include: 

  • wages,  
  • tips,  
  • salaries,  
  • commissions,  
  • payments received as an independent contractor for labor or services, 
  • bonuses, 
  • dividends, 
  • severance pay, 
  • pensions,
  • retirement benefits, 
  • royalties, 
  • interest/investment earnings, 
  • trust income, 
  • annuities,  
  • capital gains, 
  • Social Security Disability (SSD), 
  • Social Security Supplemental Income (SSI), 
  • Workman's Compensation Benefits, 
  • Unemployment Benefits,  and 
  • alimony

Meanwhile, gross income does not include income from:

  • TANF payments,
  • food stamps,
  • subsidized housing assistance,
  • veteran's benefits earned from a disability,
  • child support payments, or
  • other public assistance programs

Step 2: Expenses versus income

Second, determine what the defendant's essential expenses amount to financially. If these expenses exceed the income by more than $100, the defendant gets 50 points. If the expenses are within $100 of the income, the defendant gets 25 points. Otherwise, the defendant gets no points.

Note that expenses are for only essential items. Nonessential items do not count as expenses. Examples include:

  • cable television,
  • club memberships,
  • entertainment,
  • dining out,
  • alcohol, or
  • cigarettes

Step 3: Severity of the charge and assets

Determine what class of Colorado felony or Colorado misdemeanor the charge is, and total the amount of the defendant's assets. Then find where the defendant falls in the table below, and which point value is assigned:

Public defender 2

People with assets of over $10,000 do not get any points.

Step 4: Final tally

The final step is to add up the defendant's points from the previous three steps. Getting 150 or more points means that the court will assign the defendant a public defender. Defendants with less than 150 points do not get a public defender.

Go to the Colorado Supreme Court public defender guidelines

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.


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