Let’s imagine the following. Two sets of attorneys. They appear in the same courtrooms. They try the same cases. They have the same level of experience and competence. But they have one very big difference. They receive drastically unequal pay. Welcome to the wonderful world of being a public defender.
I spent almost 11 years as a public defender. Every year, I went to conferences and heard respected members of the legal community deliver the same platitudes about the nobility and value of public defense. Well, I’m calling bullshit, and the proof is in the paycheck.
Here are simple numbers. The starting salary for a prosecutor in Virginia Beach is $71,000. The average starting salary for a public defender is $51,000. Most deputy prosecutors make over $100,000 according to FOIA information published in the Virginian-Pilot. Deputy public defenders make $71,000.
Depiction of deputy prosecutor and deputy public defender
The pay disparity is even more galling when the resources of the offices are compared. According to office rosters, the number of full time prosecutors is 39. The number of full time public defenders is 23. The prosecutors have 20 paralegals. The PDs have none. The total support staff of the prosecutor's office is 48. The total support staff of the public defender’s office is 10. The prosecutors investigate cases with a police force of over 800 police officers, numerous state crime labs, the medical examiner’s office, and in-house investigators. The public defender’s office has 2 investigators.
Let me make something very clear. This is not an argument that prosecutors are living high on the hog (the above photo is tongue in cheek if you couldn't tell). This is strictly about the fact that PDs are getting thoroughly shat upon. Almost every prosecutor I’ve known is an ally in this fight. They’re in the trenches with the PDs every day and know they deserve better.
One of the American Bar Association’s 10 principles of a public defense delivery system is that there “should be parity of workload, salaries and other resources (such as benefits, technology, facilities, legal research, support staff, paralegals, investigators, and access to forensic services and experts) between prosecution and public defense.” Why doesn’t Virginia Beach and almost every other county in Virginia believe in pay parity?
The truth is that politicians don’t care about funding indigent defense. I've come to the conclusion that they never will until public defenders stand up for themselves and shock the system by leaving in droves. It’s hard to make the leap. I know. I stayed longer than I should have because I believed in the cause. But it's high time that PDs make a statement that they're no longer willing to be the pack mules of the criminal justice system without fair compensation.