The most commonly asked question in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder appears to be: What can I do to help? As a private criminal defense attorney and former public defender, my answer is: DEMAND EQUAL PAY FOR PUBLIC DEFENDERS.
The majority of public defender clients are black and minority defendants desperate for proper legal representation. One of the biggest problems with the public defender system is that it’s underfunded and PDs are severely underpaid. Prosecutor offices, on the other hand, always seem to be adequately funded and their attorneys properly compensated.
My hometown of Virginia Beach provides a perfect illustration of this pay disparity. An entry-level PD is paid somewhere around $52,000. An entry-level prosecutor is paid over $70,000. The city of VB financially supplements prosecuting attorneys but not public defender attorneys.
Now ask yourself the following: Which position is more valued by the system? Why do we allow a system that blatantly and disproportionately favors one side of the scale of justice over the other? Finally, who is to blame and what can I do to fix this problem?
The answers I have are as follows:
Educate yourself and others on the issue;
Organize a peaceful protest at your local courthouse;
Attend city/town council meetings and demand to be heard on the issue of financially supplementing your locality’s public defender office; and
Demand that elected officials – including prosecutors – support pay equality.
Rapper/activist Killer Mike from Atlanta gave one of the most moving and inspiring speeches in the immediate aftermath of the Floyd tragedy. Holding back anger through tears, he stated, “Now is the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize to beat up the prosecutors you don’t like at the voting booth.” That statement beautifully captures the dimension of calmness and coordination required in a time of inflamed passion.
VOTE on the issues that matter. DO something. SUPPORT equal pay for public defenders.