In 1917, Connecticut became the first state in the union to adopt the public defender system on a statewide basis. Prior to that time, Connecticut law allowed for the assignment of attorneys to represent indigent defendants in criminal cases, but the decision as to whether a defendant would be assigned an attorney was left to the discretion of the trial judge. It was not automatic.
At this time, the public defender system was relatively unknown. Only about a dozen governmental units throughout the U. S. had experimented with it, and those were all cities, with the exception of Los Angeles County. As late as 1959, only one other state, Rhode Island, had adopted the system statewide, and even today, only 22 states administer or fund all indigent services at the state level.
The 1917 Connecticut Public Defender Act provided for a single public defender in each of the 8 counties in Connecticut, with each public defender assuming responsibility for defending all indigent defendants in criminal cases. Salary as well as expenses were covered. The public defender could have subpoenas issued for any witnesses, along with the services of experts, paid for by the state. General expenses for investigating the facts of the case, interviewing friends and relatives of the accused, obtaining copies of court transcripts, etc., were also allowed.
In 1975, Connecticut established the Division of Public Defender Services as an independent agency. It started with a staff of 87 employees and a budget of $2 million. Separate Appellate and Capital Defense units were later established. The Division handled its first death penalty case in 1984, with the UConn Law School Criminal Clinic assisting with the appeal.
For more, see:
Connecticut Public Defenders, David Mars 33 Conn. Bar J. 297 (1959)
The Developing Right to Counsel: Its Impact on the Connecticut Public Defender System, William W. Wilbourne III 39 Conn. Bar J. 221 (1965)
The Public Defender: A Possible Answer to Criminal Defense Criticism, Reinhart L. Gideon 9 Conn. Bar J. 307 (1935)
State of Connecticut, Division of Public Defender Services, Connecticut As Pioneer