July 6, 2007
Justice effort has improved
Charlottesville Daily Progress
Virginia has made important strides in improving its system for indigent
Although, as advocates point out, more needs to be done, the state has
advanced significantly from a formerly disgracefully feeble system for
representing poor defendants in court.
One way the state has done that is by allocating more funding.
For the past three legislative sessions, the General Assembly has approved
almost $17 million in compensation for lawyers who represent indigent
defendants. Another $8 million has been approved for new offices and new
Virginia's public defenders once earned among the lowest salaries anywhere
in the country. The commonwealth had a low hourly rate of pay and a low cap
for total payments, even for many complicated death-row cases.
If the axiom is true that "you get what you pay for," many poor defendants
got poor representation.
Of course, many lawyers went beyond the minimum. They put in extra, unpaid
hours and maximized their use of the hours for which they were paid.
But the administration of justice then depended on a defendant's luck in
being assigned a lawyer who could or would do only the paid amount of work,
or one who was willing to volunteer extra time.
Justice should not depend on luck. Justice should be built into the system.
Providing fair compensation to lawyers for the quality and quantity of work
they perform amounts to improved justice not only for them but also for
The General Assembly probably has not received sufficient credit for this
Granted, it took years of advocacy efforts before the Assembly began to move
on the issue.
But granting more money for indigent defense was not necessarily a
politically popular move, especially in those recent years when the
legislature did not want to raise taxes yet was pushed to find money for
many good programs.
At the same time, indigent defense is not a "sexy" topic. The average voter
may not care greatly what kind of compensation lawyers for poor defendants
might receive. At the extreme, support for improved indigent defense might
even be miscast as "soft on crime" - as if ensuring that poor suspects
receive adequate representation in court is somehow an insult to the crime
Despite politically advantageous reasons to do nothing or do little, recent
Assemblies have taken action. They were sensitive to the moral and social
mandates for fairness.
In rankings by an advocacy group, the state received two As, two Bs, five Cs
and one D. It was an improvement; the state is shifting efforts in the right
Virginia can, and must, keep that momentum going.
Source : Charlottesville Daily Progress