Categorized | News

A Good Start But Only A Start

No Victory until EVERY Virginia City/County has a public defender office!

The news is exciting from Prince William County – my old home county from 1984 to 1996 – that finally (about 20 years too late) should get a public defender office!

The Governor supports the idea behind the bill introduced by Senator Scott Surovell:

The budget would help start a public defender’s office in Prince William County for the first time, and fund other additional public defender positions. Today, people who need court-appointed lawyers in Prince William County are assigned lawyers who spend most of their time in private practice.

So do two other delegates:

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-2nd, the first public defender to serve in the Virginia General Assembly, will carry an identical bill in the House of Delegates. The bill is one of several criminal justice reform bills she plans to introduce ahead of the 2020 General Assembly session. 

“I know how important it is that our most vulnerable residents have adequate representation. Prince William County deserves the same services as our neighboring jurisdictions. All Virginians deserve access to justice,” Carroll Foy said.

Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th, whose district includes parts of eastern Prince William, introduced a bill that would create a public defender office for the county and both cities. Del. Lee Carter, a Democrat representing the Manassas area’s 50th District, is the bill’s House patron.

Del. Carter has to get one thing right! Local officials are on board:

The legislation has received the endorsement of two Democrats newly elected to Prince William’s Board of County Supervisors, at-large Chairman-Elect Ann Wheeler and Occoquan Supervisor-Elect Kenny Boddye.

“Creating a public defenders’ office in Prince William County will provide access to justice for our most vulnerable residents. It is exactly the kind of thing we need to do in order to become a more inclusive community,” Wheeler said.

During an Oct. 20 public assembly attended by more than 500 VOICE members, Commonwealth’s Attorney-elect Amy Ashworth (D) said the addition of a public defenders’ office is “long overdue.”

“Our community is too large, too diverse and the cases brought by police too complex to rely upon a small group of attorneys – who volunteer their time basically, because the rate they are being paid is so low – to represent indigent defendants,” Ashworth said.

Ashworth said that as a prosecutor in with the Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office she often faced court-appointed attorneys who were “too busy or too inexperienced” to effectively defend their clients.

And there is hope of salary equalization:

If the bill is approved, the board of supervisors could decide to contribute additional local funding to supplement the salaries of public defenders. Only four public defenders’ offices – Alexandria, Arlington, Charlottesville and Fairfax – currently receive local funding.

Now let’s prod the solons and leaders a bit:

Several quotes are useful and educate the people into how the system really works (although I have to object in part: I would say court-appointed lawyers as a class – or at least the ones I know – are very dedicated and do try to help the client best they can). Let’s start with this:

Another advocate, Rev. Keith Savage of the First Baptist Church in Manassas, said that in 2018, VOICE became more involved with criminal justice reform.

“We held hundreds of listening sessions with current inmates, recently released inmates and families of inmates and began asking the question: If you could change anything about the criminal justice system, if you had a magic wand, where would you start?” Savage said.

“Out of those hundreds, 90% said the same thing: They would start with the representation; that it was awful. Many of them were indigent defendants. They said they didn’t feel like their appointed attorney fought for them.”

Rev. Savage, I do think there is a huge problem. But attacking the lawyers is not entirely fair. When I was in Prince William, we had at one point only 13 lawyers will to take indigent criminal cases! Those were exciting times with interesting cases. And the funding is part of the issue:

Across Virginia, public defender’s offices exist in more than 50 jurisdictions. But in the jurisdictions without a public defender’s office, Virginia currently pays court-appointed attorneys $120 per district court misdemeanor and between $445 and $1,235 for felonies, depending on whether they are “non-serious” or punishable by more than 20 years. Virginia provides waivers from those rates at set hourly rates provided that capped funding is still available. These annual funds often run out and Virginians often cannot afford to pay the remainder of the attorney fees for their assigned counsel, according to Surovell.

All jurisdictions should supplement salaries (just as most do for the Commonwealth Attorney’s office!) but it is still rare!

* * * Local governments often supplement the state salaries due to local cost-of-living requirements.

If Surovell’s bill is approved by the Virginia General Assembly, the Prince William County board of supervisors could decide to contribute additional local funding to supplement the salaries of public defenders. In the state, though, only four public defenders’ offices — Alexandria, Arlington, Charlottesville and Fairfax — currently receive local funding, the Prince William Times reported.

But most of the PD jurisdictions DO NOT supplement salaries. They should.

Now there are other reasons to establish a public defender office: The institutional advantage a team of lawyers and support staff have over individual lawyers even in a firm, the training and mentoring PD offices have and perhaps a bit of help with experts.

Legislators say things like this:

“This bill will improve access to and quality of justice for residents in Prince William County and the Cities of Manassas and Manassas Park,” Surovell said in a statement. “We need to offer public defender services to fulfill the constitutional rights of Virginians in our community.”

“I am excited to partner with Sen. Surovell to move this legislation forward in the General Assembly. As the first public defender ever elected to the General Assembly, I know how important it is that our most vulnerable residents have adequate representation,” Carroll Foy said in a statement. “Prince William County deserves the same services as our neighboring jurisdictions. All Virginians deserve access to justice.”

And they are right! BUT that is EXACTLY why we need the statewide network of public defender offices to best fulfill the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright (the SCOTUS case that established a right to counsel in serious criminal cases).

I would start with a plan for statewide coverage by 2030. And the next bill should be a statewide appellate/post-conviction unit. Perhaps use the existing capital defense units – add attorneys and support staff and take some of all of the appeals. So this is a great start! But we are not done yet.

And it’s NOT too late for the GOP to get ahead of the issue. Better hurry!

Hat tip to WTOP, Manassas Patch and the Prince William Times.

About Elwood Sanders

Elwood "Sandy" Sanders is a Hanover attorney who is an Appellate Procedure Consultant for Lantagne Legal Printing and has written ten scholarly legal articles. Sandy was also Virginia's first Appellate Defender and also helped bring curling in VA! (None of these titles imply any endorsement of Sanders’ views)

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Tom White Says:

Nothing is more conservative than a republican wanting to get their majority back. And nothing is more liberal than a republican WITH a majority.

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