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How the prosecutors-public defender pay disparity creates inequity in Richmond

Posted at 11:51 PM, Sep 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-28 23:51:47-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Justice and Equity were prominent themes in Monday night’s Richmond City Council meeting, as council members heard about issues involving pay disparity between prosecutors and public defenders.

“For years, the playing field in courtrooms in Richmond have not been balanced,” Tracy Paner, the city’s Chief Public Defender, argued.

Recent data showed public defenders made 40% less pay than their counterparts in the Commonwealth's Attorney’s Office.

Paner told Richmond City Council she loses about 30% of her experienced staff each year to higher-paying jobs, and that new public defenders are often forced to argue cases against more experienced prosecutors.

“2020 is a new time for an equitable criminal justice system,” Paner said. “This starts with equal funding for public defenders and prosecutors.”

In Richmond, public defenders not only represent low-income individuals in the criminal justice system but direct clients to other services such as drug counseling, housing, and mental health services.

“As a formerly incarcerated man, I know the challenges that they face,” community organizer Christopher Green told the council. “We treat front line workers in our medical profession with honor and respect. Our public defenders are our front line workers in the criminal justice system.”

While both public defenders and prosecutors are state-funded jobs, Virginia law allows localities to supplement both offices.

Last year in the City of Richmond, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office was given $7 million while the Public Defender’s Office received no supplemental funding from the city.

While no vote was taken on Monday night, a majority of city council members consented to make the issue of equitable pay a priority in the 2020-21 city budget.