Yesterday, the Daily Press published an excellent article by Peter Dujardin highlighting the drastic salary disparities between prosecutors and public defenders throughout Virginia and Hampton Roads specifically. This is an issue near and dear to my heart because I was a public defender for almost 11 years and left for private practice due largely to the insulting pay gap.
If you’ve been a public defender for long, you’ve been to seminars and conferences and heard the groan-inducing platitudes about the nobility and honor of your work. My reaction to these hollow bromides was always, “Cool story bro, but that doesn’t pay the rent or put food on kids’ plates.” If society truly valued the work of public defenders, we wouldn’t be paying them a fraction of what their adversaries in the courtroom are making.
This is usually where the conversation devolves into an inane and pointless debate about whether prosecutors or public defenders have a more difficult gig. “We have to prosecute all cases!” “We have to do constant jail visits!” “We have more jury trials!” “Your cases are handed to you on a silver platter!” Blah, blah, blah, you’re both pretty girls. Anybody who is intellectually honest working in the trenches of the system knows that good prosecutors and good defense attorneys are both important to achieving the best possible criminal justice product. Both sides know that an having an incompetent or inexperienced counterpart is inefficient, excruciating, and ultimately bad for justice.
I’m proud to be one of the many people who worked together to take significant steps to shrink the pay gap in my hometown of Virginia Beach where the City Council authorized $500,000 in supplemental public defender funding each of the past two years. I can tell you definitively that the effort would not have been successful without the support of Chief Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle. It provided invaluable credibility to have our city’s elected prosecutor tell the City Council, “It makes our job more difficult when we’re working with inexperienced defense attorneys. There can’t be integrity in a conviction unless there’s a competent defense attorney on the other side. These criminal defendants are your constituents too.” (I’m paraphrasing, but I remember it sounding something like this).
Colin’s position stands in stark contrast to so-called “progressive” Hampton Chief Commonwealth Anton Bell who is quoted in the Pilot article as stating that public defender funding “doesn’t involve me.” Bell proceeded to tell on himself in a Twitter exchange with well known online provocateur and public defender Matt Cramer in which he argued “What the Public Defenders do is not equal to what CA Offices are required by statute to do. We have statutory unfunded mandates that PD offices do not have. Secondly, you or no one else will bully me into co-signing your agenda.” Translation: Gibberish...Bullshit...Prosecutors Are More Important Than Public Defenders.
Along the way to achieving public defender funding in Virginia Beach, we heard similar resistance talking points. I’d like to take a moment to address the two specific arguments against public defender funding raised in the Pilot article.
It’s A State Problem, Not a City Problem: In the article, Hampton City Manager Mary Bunting argued that since Public Defenders are state employees, the state should pick up the tab to achieve pay equity. Hampton Mayor Donnie Tuck mirrored that talking point stating that supplementing public defenders would set a “bad precedent” because funding them is a state responsibility.
Public defender and prosecutor salaries are funded almost identically at the state level.100% of the salary disparity between public defenders and prosecutors is the result of cities funding prosecutors and not public defenders. As the article notes, Hampton provides $2.9 million annually to the prosecutor’s office while giving the public defender’s office nothing. It makes absolutely no sense to demand that the state correct imbalances caused by cities. It would be kind of like me demanding that my wife go on a diet because I’ve been gorging myself on chicken nuggets and steel reserve every night. (Sadly the diet of many public defenders on current salaries).
We Have To Face Off Against “High Paid” Defense Attorneys So We Need More Funding Than PDs: This argument conjures up the image of prosecutors helpless in the face of defendants surrounded by teams of well coiffed Armani suit clad lawyers and mercenary experts. How can the poor prosecutors be expected to compete?
This one is so laughable as to barely deserve a response so I’ll keep it short. Defense attorneys no matter how “high priced” are always severely out-funded and out-resourced by the prosecution. The government has hundreds of police officers, forensic experts, in-house investigators, and administrative staff on hand to help prosecutors put their cases together. A well funded defense might be able to afford to pay one private investigator or expert. Emphasis on might.
Here’s the bottom-line: If you care about justice, you have to care about funding indigent defense. We can’t have an adversarial system with integrity when we only provide resources to one of the adversaries. And you don’t get to go around touting your “progressive” credentials if you’re going to be part of the problem.