Most public defenders in Richmond make less than a secretary in the prosecutor’s office. They want a raise

Most public defenders in Richmond make less than a secretary in the prosecutor’s office. They want a raise
A police officer walks into the John Marshall Courthouse in downtown Richmond. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Lawyers in Richmond’s public defender’s office, in the midst of a campaign to increase their salaries, say they’re paid so much less than the prosecutors they face in court that it raises questions about whether low-income defendants are getting a fair shake at justice.

“If you’re going to fund one side of the courtroom, then you have to fund the other,” says Lauren Whitley, Richmond’s deputy public defender. “And to not do that automatically results in inequity.”

The state-funded law office represents criminal defendants who can’t afford attorneys, and while they say no one gets into the line of work expecting to get rich, their office has seen 60 percent of their staff leave over the past three years, almost always for higher paying jobs, including in the city prosecutor’s office.

Whitley says all that turnover means defendants are often represented by lawyers with much less experience than the prosecutors on the other side of the courtroom. They calculated that almost half their office has less than three years of experience, compared to 12 percent, or five out of 40 lawyers, in the city prosecutor’s office.

That’s because public defenders, with salaries starting at $53,000, make almost 40 percent less on average than their counterparts in the prosecutor’s office, according to the defender’s office, which used Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain and compare salary data. Among their findings: 27 of their 29 attorneys make less than the highest paid administrative assistant in the prosecutor’s office.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.