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Prince William public defenders’ office survives state budget freeze

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Even as the Virginia state government has halted most new spending for the upcoming fiscal year, plans for a new public defenders’ office for Prince William County and the Cities of Manassas and Manassas Park are moving forward. 

The state is providing $5.4 million in funding for the new office over the next two years for 35 full-time positions, including 24 attorneys. 

Public defenders’ offices are state-funded and staffed by attorneys who provide legal representation to individuals who can’t afford a lawyer.

Prince William County is the largest locality in Virginia and the only jurisdiction in Northern Virginia that does not have a public defenders’ office. Until now, the county has relied on court-appointed attorneys to provide legal representation for individuals who can’t afford an attorney.

In the fiscal 2021 budget they adopted Tuesday, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors included a 15% salary supplement for the attorneys who will be hired to work in the office at a cost of $350,000. The boost in salary will make attorneys’ salaries more competitive with other Northern Virginia localities.

Four Virginia public defenders' offices – in Alexandria, Arlington, Charlottesville and Fairfax – currently receive local funding in addition to state funding.

Maria Jankowski, deputy executive director for Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, said a location has not yet been decided on for new Prince William office, but said it will likely be located near the Prince William courthouse in downtown Manassas. 

“We’re working on a location,” Jankowski said. “The process of the state signing onto a multi-year lease is a long process.” 

Jankowski said the VIDC has not yet hired a chief public defender to lead the office. Once the chief defender is hired, she said, the commission will begin hiring the rest of the staff for the new office, and the chief defender will weigh in.

“I feel confident saying that by July 1, we’ll know who the chief will be and where the office will be located,” Jankowski said.

Rev. Clyde Ellis, of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, a grassroots organization that has pushed to create and fund a public defenders’ office in Prince William, said it will provide better representation for indigent individuals than the current system. 

“The poor quality of representation for low-income people in Prince William courts is a huge driver of inequality in our justice system. The current system of court-appointed attorneys simply is not working,” Ellis said during public comment time at Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting. 

Ellis added thata new public defenders’ office will likely lead to a reduction in overcrowding in the local jail, where close quarters and the inability to physically distance increases the likelihood of a COVID-19 outbreak.

“Indigent clients who receive higher quality representation are less likely to be unnecessarily incarcerated, thus reducing the overcrowded conditions that spread COVID-19. We can avoid innocent people dying in jail of this disease,” Ellis said.

The jail has drastically reduced its population since mid-March when the pandemic began in effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the jail. As of Friday, April 24, 554 people were being held in the jail, according to jail officials, well below the jail’s state-rated capacity of 667.

Reach Daniel Berti at dberti@fauquier.com

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