Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget provides start-up funding for 35 public defenders and support staff to operate a public defenders' office in Prince William County and the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park.
This comes several weeks after Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th, pre-filed a bill to create a public defenders’ office for all three localities. The proposed budget includes $2.7 million in FY 2021 and FY 2022 for the new office.
“This bill will improve access to and quality of justice for residents in Prince William County and the Cities of Manassas and Manassas Park. We need to offer public defender services to fulfill the constitutional rights of Virginians in our community,” Surovell said in a press release.
If the bill and budget are approved, Prince William County will likely have one of the largest public defender’s offices in the state. Richmond’s public defender office is the largest in the state with 29 full-time attorneys.
Prince William, Manassas and Manassas Park are the only Northern Virginia locales not currently served by a public defenders' office, and Prince William County is the most populous county in the state without one.
Jurisdictions without public defenders’ offices rely on court-appointed lawyers to provide legal representation to individuals who can’t afford a lawyer.
Creating a public defenders' office in Prince William County has been a priority for Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, the largest multi-faith, non-partisan organization in Northern Virginia.
The organization worked with Surovell to craft the bill ahead of the 2020 General Assembly session.
"VOICE has always been at the forefront of matters that build power and do social justice in Northern Virginia and throughout the Commonwealth,” VOICE Clergy Leader Keith Savage said. “This bill involved diligent stakeholder engagement and we are excited to see it move forward.”
If the bill is approved, Prince William’s Board of County Supervisors could decide to contribute additional local funding to supplement the salaries of public defenders. Only four public defender offices – Alexandria, Arlington, Charlottesville and Fairfax – currently receive local funding.
VOICEestimated it would cost the county about $295,000 a year to provide a 15% salary supplement to the attorneys hired to represent indigent defendants.
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