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The Office is administered by the New Jersey Public Defender, who is appointed to a five-year term by the Governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate. Currently heading the agency is Joseph E. Krakora of Union County, a veteran public defender.

Originally created in 1967, the Office of the Public Defender was moved under the newly created Department of the Public Advocate in 1974, a move that led to the creation of new programs dealing with specific criminal and civil issues. Among the non-criminal sections of the agency is the Law Guardian Unit, which provides representation to children who are victims of abuse and neglect. It also conducts institutional abuse investigations at residential facilities, group homes and day-care centers operated by the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). The Law Guardian Unit is currently directed by Lorraine Augostini.

In mid-1999, as part of the state's move to satisfy federal legislation geared toward speeding the adoption of children placed in foster care, the Office began representing children in so-called "Title 30" cases. In these cases, the parental rights of biological parents are sought to be terminated if it becomes clear that those parents are unwilling or unable to properly care for their children. As part of that new mission, the Office also created the Parental Representation Unit, which provides attorneys for parents in Title 30 cases. The Law Guardian Unit and Parental Representation Unit are kept administratively separate to avoid any appearance of a conflict in Title 30 cases.