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Justice Delayed: State Courts Say Low Pay, Understaffing Harms Employees and The Public

Lady Justice
Creative Commons

General district court employees across Virginia paint a grim picture of low pay and understaffing in a survey presented to the General Assembly House Appropriations Committee last week. 

District court staff who were surveyed about their experiences at work described constant low morale, a sense of hopelessness and burnout. 

“It is impossible to keep up with the caseload, the duties continue to become more complex,” said one court clerk. “ I compare my office to a sinking boat, all we do is bail it out and try to keep afloat ”

General district courts hear everything from traffic violations to domestic violence cases.

Karl Hade, executive secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia said the district courts have been understaffed and employees underpaid for several years, but it’s reaching a critical stage.   

“I’ve heard a number of clerks generally report to me that they have employees on public assistance,” Hade said. “Another clerk indicated that she had an employee whose lights had been turned off and had to go seek emergency funds from the city to get them turned back on.”

Hade said the average salary for a deputy court clerk starts at about $30,000 a year. And low compensation leads to high turnover. Hade said employees spend eight to 12 months training, only to be hired by other state or local agencies that can pay more. 

The judicial branch is asking state lawmakers for an additional $11 million to fund 120 more deputy clerk positions over the next two years.  Hade said the system is understaffed by 276 positions. 

Bill Raftery, a senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg said courts are struggling to pay and retain clerks nationwide. 

“We did research in Kansas where we found that courts were actually setting up food pantries to assist their court employees because their court staff were so underpaid,” Raftery said. 

He said funding lags far behind what it was prior to the recession, creating a hobbled court system. 

“That hobbled court system means denying access to justice,” he said. “It means delay.”

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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