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Public defender pay still an issue, though local governments lead way on supplements

Though an increase to supplemental funding for public defenders in Charlottesville and Albemarle County has taken a backseat amid the pandemic, the localities still lead the way in pay equity within Virginia.

The commonwealth’s attorney offices for both the city and the county and the joint public defender office receive funding from the state, with more funding generally going to the prosecutors.

However, since around 2008, both localities have made it a priority to allocate additional funds to further support the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender Office, helping to keep pay rates for public defenders competitive.

According to Liz Murtagh, who manages the public defender office, though requests for funding increases were largely not approved by either locality this year, the funding received still helps to meet an important need.

“I asked for an increase this year for both the city and the county, but to reach parity we would need another 100% more than they’re already giving us and that’s unrealistic,” she said. “Budgets are necessarily so tight right now, so we didn’t get that, but over time I’m hopeful that we can try to expand it a little bit.”

Because of the supplemental funding, Murtagh said the public defender office is able to be more competitive with its hirings and is able to retain people for years, even decades, leading to a low turnover rate that benefits the local criminal justice system.

The city recently adopted a budget for fiscal year 2022 that includes a supplement of $59,512 for the public defender office, the same sum as in 2021. The county, which has not yet passed its budget, is recommending $84,371, which is 2% more than FY 2021.

This is significantly less than the sum provided to both localities’ commonwealth’s attorneys offices, but doesn’t account for the difference in staffing, workload, skills and the experience of attorneys, Murtagh said.

The biggest discrepancy is between the base salaries of a prosecutor and a public defender provided by the state, Murtagh said, which are roughly $36,000 and $22,000 for full-time starting attorneys, respectively, she said. With the local supplements, the salaries are able to reach something closer to parity, she said, but some other localities, such as Danville, do not supplement their public defender offices.

“I think the city prosecutor and the public defender in Danville are trying to go together and work collaboratively to address that,” she said. “But even throughout the state, there’s a growing recognition from a lot of prosecutors that there should be more equity in the way we compensate public defenders, and I think city and county governments are recognizing that they need to step up and try to help.”

Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley is one of those prosecutors who has long advocated for additional funding for public defender offices from Virginia localities.

Before Hingeley became the county’s top prosecutor, he helped to found the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender Office in 1998 and led it until 2016.

During his time at the helm there, Hingeley said he advocated in front of the Virginia General Assembly for localities to be able to provide additional funding to public defender offices.

The process was not immediate, Hingeley said, and was impeded by the 2008 recession but eventually the General Assembly changed the state code and Charlottesville and Albemarle County became the first localities in the state to help fund their public defender office.

“Gradually, other jurisdictions are signing on, but it’s a long process and it’s always shaped by the competing demands for local revenue,” he said. “So there are places that maybe would like to do it but feel that it’s a financial reach for them.”

Hingeley pointed to Prince William County as a recent success in establishing a jointly funded public defender office.

Last year, Prince William supervisors included $350,000 in the county’s budget for a 15% salary supplement for the public defender office, according to the Prince William Times. This is on top of the $5.4 million in funding the office is receiving from the state over the next two years for 35 full-time positions, including 24 attorneys.

Other localities, such as Virginia Beach, have not helped to fund their public defender offices, leading to a call from some former defenders for supplements to the budget, according to The Virginian-Pilot.

Hingeley also pointed to the discrepancies in pay being based on experience and the work of the positions that differs between the two offices. There is not a one-to-one ratio between the prosecutor’s office and the public defender office, he said, and attorneys with different experience and responsibilities make up both offices.

“The comparison is that an employee in my office who has the same experience and credentials should match up to somebody in the public defender office who’s comparable,” he said. “In that respect, the positions have to be compared based on the people who are actually holding them, and that’s what the process does.”

Hingeley also pointed to the benefit of having the public defender office represent two localities, meaning that the city and county are able to split the funding. Currently, that is calculated on caseload and can change from year to year, but usually falls near a 50/50 split, he said.

Though there is still work to be done to bring pay equity to the two offices, Hingeley said he is appreciative of the efforts from city and county leadership, who he said have been very generous over the years.

“In the big-picture kind of way, the reason [the county and city] are providing this funding is because they recognized the costs and benefits to fair trials within the community,” Hingeley said. “Not every community does, but this community really stood up for my concept of fair trials and equal justice, and this really is an issue of equal justice.”


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