Denver public defenders are available to defendants facing jail and who cannot afford their own Colorado criminal defense lawyer. In order to get a court-appointed attorney, defendants must fill out an application showing they meet the income guidelines. Although public defenders are free, defendants are advised to hire private counsel if possible because they have more time and resources to achieve charge reductions and dismissals.
In this article, our Denver criminal defense attorneys discuss:
- 1. What is a public defender in Denver?
- 2. Who qualifies for a public defender in Colorado?
- 3. Are public defenders free in Colorado?
- 4. Can you talk to a public defender before your court date?
- 5. How do I apply for a public defender in Denver?
- 6. What if I appeal?
- 7. What are the pros and cons of having a public defender?
- 8. Can I file a complaint?
1. What is a public defender in Denver?
Defendants facing jail time in Denver who cannot afford their own criminal defense attorney are entitled to legal representation by court-appointed lawyers. The individual attorneys assigned to defendants are called deputy public defenders.
If the criminal case concerns state- or county laws, Colorado’s Office of the Colorado State Public Defender supplies the deputy public defenders.
If the criminal case concerns municipal ordinance violations, Denver’s Office of the Municipal Public Defender supplies the deputy public defenders.
And if the criminal case is in federal court, the deputy public defender comes from the Office of the Federal Public Defender.
2. Who qualifies for a public defender in Colorado?
Indigent defendants who meet either of the following income requirements qualify for a public defender in Denver.
- The defendant’s household income is at or below poverty level, and any liquid assets equal $1,500 or less, OR
- The defendant’s household income is at or below 125% of the poverty level, and monthly expenses exceed monthly income, and any liquid assets equal $1,500 or less.
The following chart indicates current poverty levels depending on the defendant’s household size:
Note that incarcerated defendants are always eligible for a public defender. But if they are released, they need to apply to keep their public defender.
Also note that public defenders are available only to defendants charged with felonies or misdemeanors carrying jail time. If the charge carries no jail time, then indigent defendants must either hire their own attorney or represent themselves.1
See our related article Colorado Public Defender Income Guidelines – What to Know.
3. Are public defenders free in Colorado?
Colorado public defenders cost nothing other than a $25 processing fee once the case ends. But even that can be waived if the defendant has no means to pay.2
4. Can you talk to a public defender before your court date?
Defendants can try to speak with their deputy public defender by calling their office or emailing them. However, deputy public defenders simply have too many clients to return everyone’s call or email. Therefore, it is not unusual for defendants to first speak with their deputy public defender at their arraignment.
The contact information for the State Public Defender in Denver is (303) 620-4999 and [email protected].
The contact information for the Denver Municipal Public Defender is (720) 865-2840 and [email protected].
The contact information for the Federal Public Defender in Colorado is 303-294-7002.
5. How do I apply for a public defender in Denver?
Indigent defendants in county- or municipal court can apply for court-appointed counsel by completing a JDF208 Form – Application for Public Defender.
In most cases, judges ask defendants at their arraignment if they can pay for their lawyer. When defendants answer no, the court clerk will hand them a JDF208 form.
In federal cases in Colorado, contact the Federal Public Defender’s Office at 303-294-7002.
6. What if I appeal?
Indigent defendants may also be eligible for a deputy public defender in criminal appellate cases. But there are strict deadlines for filing, so defendants should consult with their deputy public defender as soon as possible following the conviction.
7. What are the pros and cons of having a public defender?
The only pro of public defenders is that they are free. But the cons are many:
- Deputy public defenders are nearly impossible to reach by phone or email. And even in court, other defendants are buzzing around them vying for face time.
- Deputy public defenders are understaffed and have too many clients. Therefore, they do not have enough time to zealously advocate for each client.
- Prosecutors know that deputy public defenders are unfamiliar with most of their cases and are ill-equipped to fight for good plea deals. Therefore, defendants represented by the public defender typically do worse in court than defendants with private attorneys.
Private attorneys have far fewer clients than deputy public defenders have. Therefore, they can devote substantial time to each case in pursuit of the best resolution possible. Part of a private attorney’s job is taking prosecutors to task and wearing them down until they agree to a charge dismissal or reduction. Public defenders lack the time, resources, and energy to accomplish what private counsel can.
8. Can I file a complaint?
Yes. People with grievances can submit complaints to the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office at [email protected] or to the Denver Municipal Public Defender’s Office at [email protected].
For free legal assistance and legal services in civil cases, go to the Denver District Court Pro Se/Self-Help Center or call them at (303) 606-2442.
- Applying for a Public Defender, Office of the Colorado State Public Defender. CRS 21-1-103. See also People v. Shank, (2018) CO 51, 420 P.3d 240. Chief Justice Directive 04-05 (amended April 2023).
- CRS 21-1-103. See also Pineda-Liberato v. People, (2017) CO 95, 403 P.3d 160.