Ed. — From the Sunday, April 11, print edition.
OCEANFRONT — Some members of the City Council navigating budget season want their colleagues to add supplemental funding to help the local public defender’s office – like the local funds Virginia Beach already provides the commonwealth’s attorney here — and create a more equitable situation in the local criminal justice system.
The matter came up Tuesday, April 6, during briefings about the FY21-22 city budget proposal. About $10.5 million is proposed to support the prosecutor’s office, including about $9.6 million from the general fund. No supplemental funding goes to the public defender, which provides counsel to people in the criminal justice system who might not have representation otherwise due to economic reasons.
In response to a question by City Councilmember Rosemary Wilson, who holds an at-large seat, Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle said the public defender’s office is funded separately from his office’s budget, which relies upon state funding but is augmented by the city.
“The public defenders are a completely different agency, and it is my understanding that, at this point in time, they are not in the proposed budget,” Stolle told the City Council.
City Councilmember Michael Berlucchi, who represents the Rose Hall District, addressed the disparity in pay between prosecutors and public defenders. Burlucchi said some criticism of a proposal to try to have some parity between the offices says public defenders are a state responsibility, but he stressed that the city supplements Stolle’s office.
“There is a disparity in the state, and that’s a separate issue the General Assembly needs to address,” Berlucchi said. “But, in fact, the greater disparity between members of your team and members of the public defender’s team is a result of the city actively choosing to compensate your office up and beyond what the state does. Would you say that’s correct?”
“I would say that’s correct,” Stolle replied, adding that additional funding has been made for the commonwealth’s attorney for many years. He said that money helps him attract experienced lawyers, sometimes for entry-level positions, and keep experienced personnel longer.
In comparison, Stolle said, the public defender’s office has struggled to keep experienced people.
Berlucchi said it is the city’s responsibility to address the disparity that affects people who need representation.
City Councilmember Guy Tower, an attorney who represents the Beach District, said he appreciated Stolle’s support in addressing the issue.
“It makes a world of sense to me both as a lawyer and a citizen that our trial system is based on fairness,” Tower said. “Justice can’t come if the deck is stacked.”
Other communities have supplemented public defender pay, Tower said. Stolle agreed that five or six other communities have done so.
A reconciliation workshop is scheduled for Tuesday, May 4, and the City Council is expected to adopt a budget on Tuesday, May 11. The full budget and details on hearings are available online. Questions can be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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