Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth said this week she is still considering whether she will have to leave certain lower-level crimes to judges and police as a result of the limited funding boost her office will receive for the next fiscal year beginning July 1.
In the new county budget approved last week, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors agreed to fund seven new positions for Ashworth’s office at a cost of $952,000. It’s enough to cover the phased-in staffing plan Ashworth presented back in March, when she and several of her staff members told the board the office is in dire need of more resources to handle the county’s criminal caseload.
But the amount also fell far short of the $5.2 million Ashworth said she needs to keep prosecuting all criminal cases and traffic violations. Ashworth said she would need another eight staff members in 2023 and seven more in 2024 as the “absolute minimum” to continue prosecuting all felonies as well as misdemeanor domestic violence and driving under the influence charges. By state statute, commonwealth's attorneys offices are not required to prosecute all misdemeanors.
“When I made that presentation and I talked about the phased-in approach I said, ‘This is just for domestic violence and DUI.’ And that’s what they ended up funding,” Ashworth said.
“Ideally, my office would stay in as many cases as possible," she added. "No decisions have been made yet on what misdemeanors we may get out of, as we have only recently received confirmation that the budget passed.”
Ashworth said she is preparing for changes in her office effective July 1 and is meeting with the Prince William County Public Defender’s office and the general district court to discuss possible changes in court dockets that could alleviate the need to have prosecutors covering six different courtrooms at a time – something she said is a challenge.
Ashworth also said she will discuss “which cases we’re getting out of” with the Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park police chiefs “to make sure the police department[s have] plenty of time [to] prepare on their end for having the officers go into the courtroom and not have a prosecutor there.”
Ashworth said that she is looking at the caseload numbers to see if there are other misdemeanors – besides domestic violence charges and DUIs – her office can continue to prosecute. But she said she remains concerned about not having enough staff.
“If it’s not going to work, I will go back to the board and let them know,” she said of the supervisors. “But we’re going to do everything in our power to try to make it work.”
Meanwhile, Prince William County Chief Public Defender Tracey Lenox said her office is already planning for the possible changes that may occur July 1. She said the public defenders will “proceed as usual in terms of preparation” for the misdemeanors Ashworth’s office continues to prosecute but will also encourage their clients, when appropriate, to try to use the state’s the new “deferred disposition” statute, which took effect March 1.
The new law creates a pathway for defendants charged with certain non-violent offenses to eventually have their cases dismissed – and in many cases, their criminal records expunged – if they meet certain conditions. If defendants fail to comply with the conditions, the convictions will stand, Lenox said.
Lenox said she believes deferred disposition is especially relevant now as a possible means of relieving the demands on both the public defender’s office and the commonwealth’s attorney’s office. As more cases are continued and then dismissed, ultimately trial caseloads in will decline, Lenox said.
The statute is “meant to give people a second chance who have a clean record and who are going to be extraordinarily harmed by having a criminal conviction on their record,” Lenox said, adding: “There are whole categories of cases that ought to be disposed of in this way.”
As the chief public defender, Lenox said she would like to see deferred disposition employed for anyone charged with a first offense of almost every non-violent misdemeanor. “The prosecuting attorney now has this tool in her toolbox, just like I do,” she said.
With regard to deferred disposition, Ashworth says she is looking at her office’s options, adding: “Ms. Lenox and I share a vested interest in diversion programs for lower-level offenses.”
But Lenox said she’s concerned about the misdemeanor cases Ashworth’s office may choose to leave to police departments after July 1. The deferred disposition statute mandates agreement from the commonwealth’s attorney.
Lenox said she did not ask the board of supervisors for funding to hire more attorneys for her office because this is their first year and she is still assessing their needs. She did ask to hire an interpreter as they are “really struggling with getting adequate interpreter services for the Spanish-speaking folks that we represent,” Lenox said, but the position was not funded.
Lenox did not ask for any additional funding for salaries or personnel. “Given the newness of the office, I believe they are waiting for more clarity about what we need and how that need can be best addressed by the Board,” she said.
Lenox said she will continue to advocate for pay increases for the public defenders to bring their salaries on par with that of the attorneys in the prosecutor’s office.
“It gives real meaning and force and weight behind the idea that the commonwealth attorney, the county attorney, and the public defender are all government-funded attorneys and that we ought to have pay parity,” she said.
Reach Cher Muzyk at firstname.lastname@example.org