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Bill to Increase Pay Parity Among VA Prosecutors and Public Defenders Dies, but Fight Continues

Senior Assistant Public Defender Ashley Shapiro sits in her Richmond office.
Senior Assistant Public Defender Ashley Shapiro sits in her Richmond office. (Roberto Roldan/VPM)

In Richmond, public defenders make nearly 40 percent less than their counterparts in the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office. Some prosecutors right out of law school make more than public defenders with 10 years of experience. 

That pay disparity isn’t reflective of the important work they do, says Richmond’s Senior Assistant Public Defender Ashely Shapiro.

“We work with people that really are at the lowest point in their life,” Shapiro said. “They are having the entire full force of the system being thrust upon them. And we're the only person fighting against that.” 

In addition to representing low-income people in court, the Public Defender’s Office also employs staff to direct people to services like drug addiction counseling and emergency housing - the kind of wraparound services that help reduce recidivism.

Shapiro said most people don’t take a job as a public defender to make money, but the low pay for long hours does take its toll.

“We get amazing attorneys that start out here with all of the passion, and eventually not being able to make any money has an effect,” she said.

Internal numbers show 65 percent of the employees in Richmond Public Defender’s Office have left in the last three years.

Both public defenders and prosecutors are state-funded jobs and they are generally paid equally. Virginia law allows localities to supplement both offices, and that’s where much of the disparity comes from. 

The City of Richmond gave its Commonwealth Attorney’s office roughly $7 million last year. The Public Defender’s Office, meanwhile, got nothing.

Delegate Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond) said the resources and pay disparity between the two offices gets at the heart of the American criminal justice system.

“We [need to] continue to make sure that folks aren't getting less fair shakes in criminal proceedings just because they're poor and have to rely on the public defender's office,” he said. “Our Public Defender's Offices do a great job, but they are stretched super thin.” 

Bourne filed a bill earlier this year that would have required any locality subsidizing its prosecutors to give proportional funding to its Public Defender’s Office. Currently, six localities provide some sort of supplement - Richmond, Charlottesville and four jurisdictions in Northern Virginia. 

The bill was met with opposition from local governments and Commonwealth’s Attorneys across the state. Because of that, a Senate committee ultimately decided to punt the bill to next year. 

Chris McDonald, a lobbyist for the Virginia Association of Counties, said localities feel requiring proportional funding would mean additional costs.

“We do contend that this is an unfunded mandate,” McDonald said. “Our localities are currently in their budget processes now and this will have a direct and immediate impact on them.”

Bourne disagreed with McDonald, saying localities could simply choose not to supplement either office.

Shannon Taylor, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Henrico County, also spoke at the committee hearing. She said the bill didn’t adequately define what proportional funding should look like, given that only 25 localities even have a Public Defender’s Office and that commonwealth’s attorneys are elected, not appointed. 

She said the emphasis should be on the state, not localities, to provide more funding. 

“This is not a competition,” Taylor said. “This is about a comprehensive approach to fix what has been lacking in the criminal justice system in the Commonwealth of Virginia: appropriate compensation of our defense attorneys and prosecutors.” 

Taylor is currently chairing a commission that will explore a new formula for providing state funding for prosecutors. She said she’s also lobbying state officials, like Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, for a similar study of public defender compensation.

But for Ashley Shapiro, the issue is more immediate. 

Her office is currently in talks with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, asking him to live up to his promise of supporting criminal justice reform.

“When you look at all of these jurisdictions that are choosing solely to supplement their Commonwealth Attorney’s Offices, it’s very clear that they have made a policy decision to only care about the policing side and they don’t care about indigent defense,” Shapiro said. 

Jim Nolan, a spokesperson for Stoney, said the city plans to address the issue in the upcoming budget, which will be presented on Friday.