Through television shows like “Law and Order” the general public is familiar with the offices of the District Attorney and the prosecutors, as well as the Public Defender’s office. Did you know that until this year the Prince William County did not have a Public Defenders office? VOICE lead the initiative to establish a local Public Defender’s Office.
Why it’s important
In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that a proper legal defense is a constitution right for all citizens, especially if unable to afford legal counsel in the case where a conviction could result in a sentence to prison. Many jurisdictions relied solely upon the court-appointing of private-practice counsel to provide representation. Studies from the University of Chicago and others show that reliance on court-appointed counsel inserted an element of randomness in the quality of representation when compared to career lawyers from a dedicated Public Defenders Office. This randomness leads to a lower likelihood of bail, less favorable plea dealings, higher percentage of convictions, and longer sentences.
When facing criminal charges that may result in prison sentences, a defendant’s basic choice is to hire private counsel or rely on public sector counsel. For those with the means to hire the private counsel of their choice, they are likely to experience a better outcome. For those unable to afford private council, they draw upon either private-sector lawyers appointed by the judiciary or lawyers from the Public Defender’s office. Until 2020, Prince William County relied solely upon court-appointed private-sector counsel. As noted above, studies elsewhere point to better representation in the PD Office, given the same severity of the criminal charge.
VOICE led the initiative for the creation of Prince William’s first Public Defender office, with the goal of more equitable treatment in obtaining dedicated representation for the poorest residents in one of Virginia’s wealthiest counties. Prince William is the second-largest jurisdiction in Virginia, and the only in Northern Virginia, without a Public Defender’s office.
Through listening sessions and research actions, VOICE leaders learned that many of these defendants reported they never saw their court-appointed attorney until moments before their arraignment and they were urged to plead guilty. Other results corroborated the findings from studies of other jurisdictions.
In October of 2019, VOICE mobilized 600 Prince William Leaders for an assembly with local elected officials to kick off support for the Public Defender office. St. Francis Parishioners were part of this group. As well several parishioners went to Richmond to advocate for and ensure passage of the bill to create the PD Office.
The Public Defender’s office is now open and began taking clients in September 2020. The actions of PWC and the role of VOICE in this project was duly noted and praised by the Washington Post (read more here)