Last month I devoted my column to bills that the Virginia General Assembly could pass to improve life for our residents and make Virginia a better, more affordable place to work, live and safely raise a family. Passing new laws are an important part of what we do. The most important bill we consider, and the one to which the most time and resources are devoted is the state budget.
The Commonwealth of Virginia operates on a biennial budget proposed by the governor and adopted by the General Assembly every other year during our “long” 60-day session. Since our governors are term-limited to a single four-year stint, they are generally sworn in a day after their predecessor introduces a new state budget.
This January, though, the governor will have his one and only opportunity to introduce his own budget, developed with the input of his staff members, agency heads and the cabinet members he appointed at the beginning of his term. He’ll also be able to shepherd it through the legislative process while he continues to have the leverage of his veto pen in hand.
This is the opportunity the governor has to craft a budget that is a statement of his values and priorities, hopefully with the support of a like-minded General Assembly.
This is an opportunity for the governor to invest in higher education, transportation infrastructure, affordable housing and other important priorities.
One area of the budget that doesn’t get as much attention is one where a relatively modest increase in funding could do immeasurable good for one of my priority issues, criminal justice reform.
Earlier this month, I met with local public defenders and officials from the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission. During the meeting, they told me the most impactful criminal justice reform the General Assembly could take in the upcoming session is to adequately fund indigent defense in Virginia.
The Virginia Indigent Defense Commission (VIDC) is the state agency tasked with protecting the most vulnerable members of our community, those accused of a criminal offense and who are unable to afford counsel.
The VIDC operates 25 public defender offices across the Commonwealth in furtherance of their mission to protect and defend “the rights and dignity of their clients through zealous, compassionate, high-quality legal advocacy.” Each office has a chief public defender, a deputy public defender, and assistant public defenders. The number of assistant public defenders depends on the size of the jurisdiction.
Despite much higher attorney workloads as a result of an increase in the number and needs of seriously mentally ill clients, greater travel due to the increased use of remote regional detention centers, and voluminous (often electronic or forensic) evidence, including body worn cameras, the General Assembly has not authorized any new attorney positions for these public defender offices in over a decade.
The Brennan Center for Justice recently released a report documenting the impact of underfunding indigent defense on the criminal justice system including mass incarceration that noted “the fiscal cost of indigent defense reform is not nearly as high when one accounts for the savings it can bring.” Issues exacerbated by defender resource disparity are extremely expensive.
Of course, these issues affect prosecutors’ offices as well. The difference is, we’ve been increasing attorney staffing in the Commonwealth Attorney’s office substantially over the last ten years. As a result, it’s not uncommon for a local public defender office to have half the number attorneys as the local prosecutor. Just since 2016, there have been ten new prosecutor positions added in Fairfax County to address the issues described above. Again, no new attorney positions in public defender offices.
This disparity is another driver of increases in workload for public defenders, as many of those new prosecutor positions come with the expectation that there will be increased prosecution of a particular type of case or area.
Increasing funding for indigent defense will improve outcomes for the wrongfully accused, those suffering from mental illness, and for offenders working to re-enter society and return to their communities as productive and contributing citizens. This enhances public safety for everyone, while reducing so many of the ill effects of mass incarceration.