Have you ever wondered what the average public defender salary in the US is? It's a question you should ask yourself if you're about to pursue a career as a public defender.

About 3 in 10 Americans rely on public defenders. That said, are you considering becoming one? Read on and see how much they make in each state and the overall average.

Let's determine whether becoming a public defender is worth it or not!

Public Defenders and Criminal Justice in the US: An Overview

Did you know the United States has one of the largest prison populations? With over 1.9 million people behind bars, the US takes the cake for the highest incarceration rate globally.

Given these shocking numbers, the American criminal justice system must be as fair and unbiased as possible. This system is complex, and many lawyers work to ensure justice is served. One such profession is that of a public defender.

Public defenders represent those who cannot afford a private attorney. The state or federal government hires them to defend criminal defendants.

Believe it or not, public defenders haven't always been an option for "indigent" defendants. It wasn't until 1963 that the Supreme Court interpreted the Sixth Amendment to mean that everyone has the right to counsel, rich or poor.

If someone accused of a crime couldn't afford an attorney, one would be provided. It was a game-changer for the criminal justice system and gave underprivileged people access to justice.

Average Public Defender Salary in the US Breakdown

Being a public defender seems like an empathetic and enjoyable profession, but what determines their salary?

The average US public defender's salary depends on years of experience, location, and employer. Let's look at US public defender wages by entry-level, yearly, monthly, and hourly.

Average Entry-Level Public Defender Salary ($40k estimate)

Starting salaries for entry-level public defenders in the US vary depending on the abovementioned factors.

GlassDoor reports the starting salary for US public defenders at $88,327, which is higher than other salary estimates.

The ZipRecruiter estimate for entry-level public defenders in the US was $49,990, ranging from $37,500 to $53,500.

Another source, Payscale, puts the national public defender pay at $61,242, from entry-level $42,000 to almost $90,000 for more experienced.

Average National Public Defender Salary ($65k estimate)

Biglaw Investor's survey of 72 public defender offices in the 50 largest US cities shows that the national average public defender salary is $66,182. 

Some experts believe public lawyers are paid much less than the data shows, especially in flat-fee case appointment systems.

  • Per Year: According to Indeed, the average annual salary for a registered public defender in the United States is $68,000.
  • Per Month: Monthly, this averages out to around $5,000.
  • Per Hour: In terms of hourly pay, it is $30.80 per hour.

Average Public Defender Salary By State ($131k highest, $45k lowest)

Public defender salaries vary dramatically by state. Some states may offer higher wages for public defenders than others.

Based on Zippia's Best States and Biglaw Investor report, the top 5 states with the highest public defender salaries are California, New York, Texas, Nevada, and Alaska.











New York


The bottom five states with the lowest public defender salaries are Kentucky, Oklahoma, Alabama, Missouri, and North Carolina.











North Carolina


Things To Know Before Choosing To Become A Public Defender

Becoming a public defender is a big decision, but it's rewarding and challenging. Before embarking on this path, here are some key considerations:

  1. Type of court. Consider what type of court you prefer to work in, depending on your area of interest. Public defenders can work in federal, state, or local courts, each with its own obstacles and opportunities.
  2. Location. Some localities may need public defenders more than others, and others may offer more career opportunities.
  3. Prior Experience. Public defenders need as much experience as possible. It can include internships with a public defender office and clinical work in law school.
  4. Mid Career. Becoming a public defender isn't just a career choice for recent law school graduates. This field may also suit mid-career professionals searching for a change.
  5. Average Earnings. While public defenders may not earn as much as those in private practice, they can still earn an average salary of $68,000 per year. Public defenders also enjoy the satisfaction of helping those who cannot afford legal representation.

The Bottom Line

As it turns out, the average public defender's salary in the US is—like so many other things in life—somewhat dependent on many factors.

Whether you want to know about their salary or an entire job breakdown, the above list can serve as the ultimate resource.