Bills to create a public defenders’ office in Prince William County and the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park were approved by the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates with bipartisan support this week.
Public defenders’ offices are state-funded and staffed by attorneys who provide legal representation to individuals who can’t afford a lawyer.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th, passed the Senate 33-7 Monday, Feb. 3.
The House of Delegates companion bill, sponsored by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-2nd, passed the House with unanimous support Tuesday, Feb. 4.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) included the new public defenders' office in his proposed criminal justice reform agenda for the 2020 General Assembly Session. Northam’s two-year budget provides $2.7 million in funding for the new office in both fiscal years 2021 and 2022 for 35 positions. Fiscal year 2021 begins July 1.
The Virginia Indigent Defense Commission said 50 positions and $3.9 million are required to fully staff a public defenders’ office in the Prince William area, but a partially staffed office consisting of 35 positions could be operated at an annual cost of $2.7 million per year.
Prince William County is the largest jurisdiction in Virginia -- and the only one in Northern Virginia -- not served by a public defender office. Currently, Prince William County relies on court-appointed attorneys to represent indigent defendants.
Surovell said Prince William’s Board of County Supervisors have indicated they will supplement the salaries of attorneys at the new office.
Attorneys working for public defenders’ offices are typically paid far less than the prosecutors they face in the courtroom, but the county could provide additional local funding to boost their pay.
Four Virginia public defenders' offices – Alexandria, Arlington, Charlottesville and Fairfax – currently receive local in addition to state funding.
Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, a grassroots organization that has pushed for the creation of the new office, estimated it would cost the county about $295,000 a year to provide a 15% salary supplement to the attorneys hired to represent indigent defendants.
The organization says a public defenders’ office in the county will lead to more equitable treatment for the poorest residents in Prince William, Virginia’s largest minority-majority county.
“Over the past year, teams of VOICE citizen-leaders from Prince William County spoke face-to-face with hundreds of people involved with the criminal justice system to better understand people’s experiences and the kinds of reforms that are most needed,” said VOICE leader, the Rev. Keith Savage.
“From those conversations VOICE heard over and over that the poor quality of representation for low-income people in Prince William courts was a huge driver of inequality in our justice system. The current system simply isn’t working. We knew we had to make this change.”
The legislation has received the endorsement of two Democrats newly elected to Prince William’s Board of County Supervisors, at-large Chair Ann Wheeler and Occoquan Supervisor Kenny Boddye.
Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth (D) said in October 2019 that the creation of public defender’s office in the county was “long overdue.”
Reach Daniel Berti at firstname.lastname@example.org