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Public defender offices- Fairfax lawyer says they are needed statewide

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Public defender offices- Fairfax lawyer says they are needed statewide - Photo of Bill of Rights

Public defender offices- Fairfax lawyer says they are needed statewide

Public defender offices are needed for every Virginia courthouse, says Fairfax criminal lawyer

Public defender offices are needed in every Virginia courthouse. As a Fairfax criminal  lawyer, I am thank state senator Scott Surovell for sponsoring legislation to add Prince William County — which has one of the commonwealth’s busiest criminal court case dockets — to the long list of Virginia counties and cities with such offices.

Fairfax criminal lawyer on the need to breath life into the Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel for all

The United States Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantees the criminally accused “assistance of counsel for his defense” in all criminal prosecutions. The United States Supreme Court has clarified that this means the right to effective assistance of counsel.  Two weeks before I was born in 1963, the United States Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainright clarified the Sixth Amendment’s requirement for providing court-appointed lawyers for indigent criminal defendants. Court-appointed indigent defense lawyers come in the form of lawyers working for public defender offices and private lawyers accepting paid court appointments through the Criminal Justice Act in the federal courts and through state-established legal provisions. I myself was honored to have served as a public defender lawyer for five years in Maryland in the early 1990’s, helping to assure that all criminal defendants get effective assistance of counsel, not only wealthy defendants.

Not all criminal defendants qualify for indigent defense

Not all applicants for public defender and court appointed lawyers will be determined to be poor enough to qualify for one. Unfortunately, that creates a legion of working people who are not poor enough to qualify for a court-appointed lawyer but without sufficient funds to pay a qualified lawyer. Rather than have all or nothing access to court-appointed counsel, people unable reasonably to afford a qualified lawyer should be provided the opportunity to get court-appointed counsel to whom they make a sliding scale payment (with payments spread over time for the defendant’s share, advanced by the government to the lawyer) — or should be granted partial sliding-scale reimbursement for their retained lawyer. Otherwise, the Sixth Amendment right to effectively assistance of counsel still has insufficient teeth.

Indigent defense must be sufficiently funded

Nationwide funding for indigent criminal defense varies widely, from the generally well-funded federal public defender system, to numerous state-level public defender offices with insufficient funding for staff, experts and other resources and with insufficient salaries. Court appointed payment schedules for indigent defense also ranges widely, with Virginia’s payment schedule being abysmal.

Reduced court-appointed income for private lawyers should not be an argument for not opening public defender offices

Well-run and well-funded public defender offices bring strength for indigent criminal defendants in terms of strength in numbers of in-house lawyers, identifying and hiring the best lawyers, ongoing training and supervision, support staff, and funding for investigators and expert witnesses and expenses. To the extent that any judges avoid appointing indigent cases to lawyers they think are too zealous for their clients (and thus taking more court time and turning in fee reimbursement requests for higher hours), such lawyers are less likely to be concerned about such judicial whims than private lawyers handling court-appointed cases, who themselves should not reduce their zealousness one iota.

Yes, private lawyers can experience lower income in counties where public defender systems are established, but that should not be permitted to be a reason for not establishing well-funded and well-run defender offices. We already see that in Virginia counties like Arlington (whose defender office is not more than two decades old), plenty of court-appointed work remains available for private lawyers, for conflict and other indigent defense matters.

Fairfax criminal lawyer Jonathan L. Katz pursues your best defense against felony, misdemeanor, DUI, drug and sex prosecutions. Jon Katz will be delighted to discuss your court-pending Northern Virginia criminal defense case. Please call Jon’s staff at 703-383-1100 to schedule a confidential consultation.