RICHMOND, Jan. 24 -- Virginia lawmakers are considering proposals that would allow court-appointed attorneys to collect bigger fees for representing poor people charged with crimes.
The rates that Virginia pays such lawyers are among the lowest in the nation, and sponsors of the bills say they hope a pay raise will help ensure that all defendants are adequately represented.
Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) and Del. Gary A. Reese (R-Fairfax) have submitted House Bill 1596, which would increase pay by more than 50 percent for lawyers who represent the indigent in criminal court. The raise proposed in the bill would bring Virginia in line with other states.
For instance, some felony case payments to Virginia attorneys are capped at $1,096. The bill sponsored by Black and Reese, which has passed the chamber's Courts of Justice Committee, would increase the level to $1,853.
House Bill 2814, sponsored by Del. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Virginia Beach), would remove the cap on payments for some serious felony cases and authorize judges to pay a higher rate to attorneys in such cases. Virginia is one of two states that do not allow judges to authorize more money for attorneys even if they are working many hours on cases.
To become law, the two House bills must pass the chamber's Appropriations Committee and the full House of Delegates and Senate and then be signed by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).
"It's important that this state carry out justice properly," said Black, who is considered one of the legislature's most fiscally conservative members. He said he became interested in the issue largely based on his experience as a judge advocate in the military before joining the General Assembly.
"If they are guilty, I want them found guilty, but first I want them to get a fair access to counsel," Black said.
Meanwhile, Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) has submitted a budget amendment that would increase funding for public defenders' offices across the state by 8 percent.
Court-appointed attorneys are private lawyers who make themselves available to circuit and district courts to represent people who cannot afford to hire attorneys. Public defenders are state employees who represent people who cannot afford attorneys.
The American Bar Association released a report last year that cited high caseloads and low pay among Virginia's public defenders and court-appointed attorneys.
Defense attorneys say that better pay would allow them to spend more time preparing cases. Advocates for such changes also said that removing the caps on fees would be the best solution.
"Any increase is appreciated . . . but the only solution is the abolition of the caps," said Steven Benjamin, a Richmond lawyer who is on the board of directors of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Alluding to ABA statistics that show that Virginia has increased the average amount it pays court-appointed attorneys by $12 a case since 1971, he added, "The problem with incremental increases is that that approach to the problem is what has kept Virginia at the bottom for decades."
Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation giving the state more oversight on criminal defense attorneys who represent the poor statewide, but it did not provide more funding for them.
Virginia would still have to find the money to pay for the increased payments called for by the House bills. The measure sponsored by Black and Reese would cost the state about $26.5 million a year over the next two years, according to the state Supreme Court. A financial impact statement for McDonnell's bill is scheduled to be released Tuesday in the assembly.
"There will be budget considerations for us to think about. We're going to try and push something through," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem).
House leaders also point out that the state has not fulfilled all of its statutory obligations to defense attorneys for the poor. State law calls for attorneys to be paid $445 for cases that carry up to 20 years in prison, but they are now paid $395 a case.