“IF YOU could change anything about the criminal justice system, if you had a magic wand, where would you start?” Community organizers in Prince William County posed that question to hundreds of prison inmates, ex-offenders and their families. Most said the same thing: They would start with legal representation. “Many of them were indigent defendants who had court-appointed attorneys,” explained the Rev. Keith Savage of the First Baptist Church of Manassas. “They said they didn’t feel like their appointed attorney fought for them.”

Virginia’s second-most-populous jurisdiction, and the only Virginia county that is majority-people of color, Prince William County lacked a public defender’s office. It relied on a flawed system of low-paid court-appointed counsel to represent low-income defendants. That is now about to change, in large measure due to the grass-roots movement spearheaded by Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE), a nonprofit in Northern Virginia comprised of dozens of faith and civic organizations.

Legislation establishing a public defender’s office for Prince William County and the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park passed the General Assembly this year, and both the state and county have committed the necessary funding. There was worry that creation of the office would get caught up in the budget freeze resulting from the covid-19 pandemic, but officials rightly recognized how essential it is to improve the quality of legal representation for the commonwealth’s poorest residents. The $5.4 million in state funding over the next two years will fund 35 full-time positions, including 24 attorneys, and the county will provide money for a local cost-of-living supplement.

Research has shown that public defenders from properly funded offices deliver better results than assigned attorneys. The compensation that appointed attorneys receive in Virginia — $120 per district court misdemeanor and between $445 and $1,235 for felonies — encourages a system overly reliant on plea deals. Typical of the stories that VOICE activists heard was that of Deshapreca Robinson, who was 18 and about to go college when she admittedly made a “bad decision” in passing bad checks. Arrested and charged with three felonies, Ms. Robinson was assigned an attorney she met once who, she says, treated her like a nuisance when she asked questions. Told she would get 20 to 30 years in jail, she accepted a deal she didn’t fully understand — ‘There was no Google then,” she told us — and spent three years, one month and a day in prison. Her criminal record has made it hard for her to get a job and rent an apartment.

The Virginia Indigent Defense Commission is interviewing candidates to head the office, and it is hoped the office will be up and running this summer or fall.

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