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General Assembly approves funding for new Public Defender Office in Chesterfield
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General Assembly approves funding for new Public Defender Office in Chesterfield

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Chesterfield County Courthouse

Chesterfield County Courthouse

VA House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn's speech wrapping up the 2021 session

The General Assembly on Saturday approved funding for a new $3.2 million public defender office in Chesterfield County, and the top position is already being advertised on the state’s employment website.

As part of a bill sponsored by state Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, state legislators allocated $3,164,584 in the state’s $141 billion, two-year budget they adopted for the 33-position office, which includes money to lease a yet-to-be-determined workplace near the county courthouse in fiscal 2021-22.

The Virginia Indigent Defense Commission has posted a job listing for a chief public defender who will run the office at an annual salary of $109,990. The person hired likely will begin work July 1.

To fund the new office, the assembly approved budget amendments that would reduce the amount allotted to pay private, court-appointed attorneys in Chesterfield who now represent indigent criminal defendants in the county.

The state anticipates saving $486,803 in court-appointed attorney costs in Chesterfield General District Court during the office’s first year, prorated for six months. An additional $421,117 and $171,931 are expected to be saved in lawyer fees in Chesterfield Circuit Court and Chesterfield Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, respectively, according to the budget amendments.

The total estimated savings of $1.079 million in attorney fees would largely cover January through June 30, 2022, since the new office isn’t expected to be fully operational until the end of this year.

The budget amendments also indicate that a portion of funding currently appropriated for Capital Indigent Defense Services — which represents clients charged with capital murder — could be used for the new Chesterfield office now that the assembly has abolished the death penalty in Virginia.

In fiscal year 2019, the Virginia Supreme Court paid, with state funds, $3.397 million to private, court-appointed attorneys to represent defendants who couldn’t afford representation in Chesterfield’s three courts. The amount of fees paid to private attorneys in Chesterfield in fiscal 2020 was lower — $2.843 million — due to a slowdown in court activity caused by the pandemic.

Chesterfield’s public defender office will be the 27th established in the state, which combined will now serve 55 localities across Virginia.

As promised, the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission immediately began recruiting for a leader for the office. It posted the job Friday, one day before the assembly approved the funds.

“We knew this was coming,” said Maria Jankowski, the commission’s deputy director. “We have to recruit through the state recruitment system, so applicants will have to apply through [that].”

The position has been posted at https://virginia jobs.peopleadmin.com/postings/214087

“We would hope to have the individual selected” by July 1, Jankowski said. “They can’t start until the funding’s there, so their start date wouldn’t be until July 1 or after. But we would hope to know who it is.”

Office space will be leased with the help of the Department of General Services.

The office will be staffed by 33 people, including a chief public defender, a deputy defender, five senior assistant public defenders, one senior trial attorney and 14 assistant public defenders. The office also would have two investigators, two mitigation specialists (to assist with sentencing) and seven office support staff.

In addition, a systems administrator will be hired to monitor the office’s operating systems, business applications, web servers, email and office personal computers.

The newest public defender office, in Prince William County, became 100% operational by the end of 2020, after the General Assembly approved it in early 2020.

The office began taking cases on a limited basis on Sept. 1, but didn’t become fully operational until Jan. 4, the first full work week of the new year. Most of the staff had been hired and trained, and all of the office’s logistics were in place by Christmas, said Tracey Lenox, Prince William’s chief public defender.

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