THE VIRGINIA GENERAL Assembly took small steps in its recently approved budget toward improving the dreadful state of legal representation for poor people accused of crimes in the commonwealth. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to counsel in criminal cases, yet Virginia has for decades failed to provide competent, reasonably compensated lawyers to those it would imprison. Its dual system, with overworked public defenders' offices in some jurisdictions combined with court-appointed lawyers paid less than anywhere else in the nation, has made substandard representation the norm.
This year the General Assembly created a commission to oversee defense of the indigent -- a commission with the power to impose standards and regulate caseloads. In approving $15.5 million in its two-year budget, it has moved to create four new public defenders' offices -- in Arlington, Newport News, Hampton and Chesapeake -- as well as 32 additional public defender positions around the state. Some of the money also will support the commission. The combination of a stronger, centralized authority and new investment in public defenders is promising.
It must not, however, be confused with a solution to the systemic problem. The new money is a fraction of what is needed to make Virginia's system perform reasonably. Court- appointed lawyers still represent the bulk of indigent defendants in criminal cases in the commonwealth, and state payments to them remain so low that nobody can make a living handling court-appointed work with the diligence that lawyers should show on behalf of every client. Crimes that can land a defendant in prison for 20 years, for example, can net an attorney no more than $395 -- no matter how hard a lawyer works or how long a trial goes. The state pays on average only $12 more for a criminal defense than it did three decades ago. No reform that fails to lift these ludicrously low fee caps will give Virginia the system it needs to meet its constitutional obligations and protect people from wrongful convictions.