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Richmond to Pay Public Defenders Moving Forward

Building with columns
The Marsh Manchester Courts Building in South Richmond. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond City Council has agreed to start supplementing the salaries of lawyers in the city’s Public Defender’s office. They’ve set aside nearly $600,000 in this year’s budget -- roughly half the amount the office asked for.

Public defenders, who represent people who can’t afford a lawyer, have urged the city to help pay their salaries for years.

The state of Virginia pays the salaries of prosecutors in Commonwealth Attorney offices as well as attorneys in public defender offices. But Richmond, like many other Virginia cities, supplements the salaries of prosecutors.

Public defenders say without that additional support from the city, they struggle to keep lawyers on staff, which makes it difficult to provide equal justice for people accused of crimes.

Ashley Shapiro, the senior assistant public defender in Richmond, said she’s hopeful the city will continue to honor this budget commitment and reconsider their full ask next year. 

“People are already excited about what that would mean for them and their families,” Shapiro said. “[We’re] trying to focus on retaining attorneys and training attorneys.”

Internal datashow 65% of the employees in Richmond Public Defender’s Office have left in the last three years.

Three city council members, Mike Jones, Stephanie Lynch and Cynthia Newbille, all proposed setting aside at least  $1 million for public defenders, which would have brought the office much closer to pay parity with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office.

Last month, Lynch, who introduced one of the budget amendments, said  it’s hard to justify padding the salaries of the prosecutor’s office so much so that they’re earning almost double the salary of public defenders in the city.

“We created that disparity, not because of their constitutionally-mandated duties,” Lynch said. “We created it because of the argument that we would have safer communities -- and I put that in air quotes -- by having more competitive salaries and higher paid prosecutors in the prosecutor's office.”

The funding will come from the city’s general fund budget.

Many localities in Northern Virginia have already introduced pay parity among public defenders and prosecutors. The same has happened in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. This year, public defenders in Virginia Beach are also petitioning their city council for pay parity. 

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said the city was allocating "over $500,000" to public defenders. The exact amount is $572,000 and we've updated our piece.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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