An impending “explosion” of jury trials. Backlogged cases. Years of unmet staffing needs.
Those were the concerns raised by Prince William County judges, clerks and prosecutors Tuesday as officials made their case to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors for a massive funding boost they say is needed to expand the courthouse and deal with an ever-increasing number of criminal court cases.
“This is critical. We are on life support,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy Ashworth said in an interview Wednesday about the need for more staff.
Officials said between 25 and 45 new full-time positions are needed between the courts and prosecutors, an ask that will likely require millions in funding from the county’s general fund above the county executive’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1. Most of the new positions are being requested by the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.
Ashworth said the office needs at least 23 new positions, including 10 new attorneys, to address increasing criminal caseloads. But she said the office would likely need as many 30 new positions to continue without a reduction in the services they currently provide.
If the staffing needs are not met this year, Ashworth warned the office may have to stop prosecuting certain misdemeanor cases, such as stalking or animal abuse charges, to lessen the workload on prosecutors, something she said she said she absolutely does not want to happen. If the office does stop prosecuting some misdemeanor cases, those cases would be taken up by law enforcement officers who may not be qualified to handle them, Ashworth said.
“We simply cannot maintain this with the caseload we carry,” Ashworth said.
Prince William has fewer prosecutors than similar-sized Va. jurisdictions
Prince William’s Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office has fewer attorneys and administrative staff than other Virginia jurisdictions of comparable size, according to data Ashworth presented to during the supervisors' Tuesday, March 9 work session. Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesterfield all have more prosecutors and administrators than Prince William County, even though their offices serve smaller populations.
Ashworth said this has led to Prince William County prosecutors taking on more cases per prosecutor on average than those jurisdictions.
Asked why the office suddenly needs so many more staff after receiving only minor budget increases in recent years, Ashworth said it was an issue that had been building over “the past couple of decades.” She said in the past, some cases “were reduced or dismissed” as a result of inadequate staffing. But she said that is no longer the case.
Ashworth also said she expects the number of jury trials to increase dramatically this year as a result of jury sentencing reform passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 2020, which she said would further increase the workload for local prosecutors. Virginia will become the 49th state to transfer sentencing power from juries to judges beginning this July, which is expected to greatly increase the number of people accused of crimes seeking jury trials.
Several prosecutors office spoke in support of boosting the commonwealth’s attorney’s office staff during the supervisors’ Tuesday evening public hearing on the new budget. Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Christina Robinson said the office strives for equal justice.
“Fair application of the law and ethical prosecution is critical to judicial reform. That cannot be done without resources,” Robinson said. “... We need growth and people in order to deal with a changing system and thus avoid a dramatic and harmful cutback in services.”
The budget proposed by County Executive Chris Martino in February includes only two new positions for the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, far less than what is being asked. That could pose a major problem for the supervisors, who will need to figure out in the coming months how to fund numerous additional positions in a budget that, as proposed, already increases residential tax bills by 7%.
Judge: 'No room' for more staff at the Prince William courthouse
In addition to the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, officials from the Prince William Circuit Court, General District Court and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court are also requesting increases in staffing. Officials also raised concerns about the size of the existing courthouse and the limited amount of space available for court employees.
The county has begun taking steps to design and construct an expansion for the courthouse, but the proposal is still in the very early stages.
The county has proposed adding one new staff position for the juvenile and domestic relations court, but Circuit Court Judge Kimberly Irving told the board that, while the position is needed, there is “no room” for another employee in the office. The juvenile and domestic relations court hears all matters involving minors under the age of 18.
“There is no space for an extra person at all,” Irving said.
No local salary supplements in Prince William
General District Chief Judge Robert Coleman said the general district court is currently staffed at 70%. Coleman noted that most of the district court’s employees are state positions. But he said that, unlike most other Northern Virginia locales, Prince William General District Court employees receive no salary supplement from the county.
“All those other Northern Virginia locales are receiving a 15% pay supplement from the locality for their job,” Coleman said. “... The morale, the retention rate that we have for keeping employees, the turnover rate is a direct result of us having to compete with better pay in other jurisdictions.”
The county’s proposed budget would add three positions to the general district court over the next two years, but Coleman said, “It’s only going to put a small dent into the great need that we have.”
The general district court handles traffic violations, minor criminal cases known as misdemeanors, and conducts preliminary hearings for more serious criminal cases.
Clerk of the Circuit Court Jackie Smith also requested a new deputy clerk position. Smith said the office has seen a 37% increase over the last three years in its workload but has not had any staffing increases during that time. The workload includes a 75% increase in the number of concealed handgun permit requests, Smith said.
“With a 37% workload increase over three years, we just can’t absorb long-term and still provide the high level of service that the people of Prince William, Manassas and Manassas Park currently experience,” Smith said.
Irving, the circuit court judge, said the circuit court has added only one judge since 2000, bringing the total to six judges. In that same time period, the number of cases that each judge is working on has more than doubled.
“We really need administrative support,” Irving said.
So far, supervisors have not addressed how they would fund new positions at the courthouse or commonwealth’s attorney’s office. At-large Board Chair Ann Wheeler (D) raised the prospect of increasing the cost of concealed weapons permits as one way to fund some of the new positions. The current cost to get a concealed weapon permit in the county is $15. The permits used to cost $50 until former board chairman Corey Stewart led an effort to slash the fee to the state minimum.
Other supervisors said they support the effort, but any further discussion about the staffing needs was deferred to a future meeting. The supervisors will hold their next meeting on Tuesday, March 16.
“A lot of these improvements are long overdue,” said Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville.
Reach Daniel Berti at email@example.com