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Scott Stokes column: Public defenders are front-line workers
Criminal Justice

Scott Stokes column: Public defenders are front-line workers

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In September, Richmond City Council, with Mayor Levar Stoney as a co-patron, approved a resolution to pay public defenders equally with Richmond’s prosecutors. For years, Richmond has supplemented the state salaries of its prosecutors, but not its public defenders. This is evidence of Stoney and City Council’s commitment to work for a more just Richmond.

Just like grocery store employees, health care providers, transportation workers, police officers and other essential workers, public defenders never have stopped doing their jobs during this global pandemic. They continue to advocate for their clients in and out of court everyday. Since the initial statewide COVID-19 “lockdown” this past March, Richmond’s public defenders tirelessly and consistently have been appearing in court, visiting jails, investigating cases, and meeting with clients and witnesses. They have been relentless in their advocacy for the citizens of Richmond.

Public defenders are the front-line workers of the criminal system. This past spring, when the courts in Richmond stopped having trials, public defenders were in court every morning to represent individuals arrested overnight. Public defenders argued in court for pretrial release, and checked in with concerned family and friends.

Jails and prisons consistently have been top COVID-19 hot spots around the country, and public defenders know their clients’ lives are at risk as people held in the jails are among those who are at highest risk from the virus. Richmond’s public defenders never have stopped going into the jails to visit their clients. And public defenders have worked to reduce incarceration rates by filing motions to reduce sentences and arguing for alternatives to incarceration. Public defenders have stood in support of their clients’ constitutional rights, in a year where trials are at a standstill and cases are on hold.

This virus has challenged public defenders to be creative and find new ways to advocate for their clients. Many substance abuse and mental health treatment providers and services have been restricted or eliminated. Housing — always a challenge — has become even more difficult to secure during COVID-19. Meeting with clients, investigating cases and witnesses, and advocating in court all have been challenging. But public defenders never give up, and they know their clients depend on them. I know this from personal experience because I am one of those clIents.

Two years ago, I entered the Richmond drug court for a probation violation. I was represented by public defenders who helped me recognize that I was ready to work toward sobriety. I had some struggles during my time in the program but every week, my public defenders were in court, advocating for me and standing by me while my case was pending. My lawyers checked in with me, gave me encouragement, and reminded me of how far I’d come in drug court and in my life. I am proud to be a successful graduate of the Richmond drug court, and I am very grateful for the support and presence of my public defenders throughout my case, especially as it occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, I have a wonderful job as an electrical foreman, doing work I enjoy. I am in the process of getting my driver’s license reinstated and I remain drug-free.

I know my story is not unique. Richmond’s public defenders have advocated for thousands of clients during the past year. And we as a city are lucky they have.

I commend Stoney for his support of Richmond’s public defenders. Equal pay on both sides of the courtroom is critical and, as the front-line workers of the criminal system, equal pay for public defenders is critical to a more just criminal system in Richmond.

Scott Stokes is an electrician who currently resides in Chesterfield County, where he lives with his mini-Australian shepherd Jupiter. Contact him at: rvaequalpay@gmail.com

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