Proposed bill would create public defender office for Harrisonburg, Rockingham
A new bill introduced in the General Assembly this session aims to create a public defender office for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
If you are charged with a crime in Harrisonburg or Rockingham County, and you don't have the means to hire an attorney, a judge will assign one to your case from a list of private defense lawyers – a.k.a, a court-appointed attorney. A new bill introduced in the Virginia House of Delegates earlier this month would create a public defender office, with staff attorneys dedicated to those cases.
Public defender offices across the state are overseen by the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission. Local defense attorney Aaron Cook has served on the commission since July.
AARON COOK: I wanted to do whatever I could to get a public defender office here in Harrisonburg. … I'm also interested in … working, not just on my cases, but also In improving criminal defense and legal representation for the accused at a state level, or at a policy level.
One of the main reasons Cook says that Harrisonburg needs a public defender office is that the number of private attorneys willing to take court-appointed cases is dwindling, largely due to the low pay they receive for those cases.
COOK: And the workload has increased, so they're getting more cases and they're not being compensated.
The General Assembly sets the amount the state pays for court-appointed attorneys – capping it at $120 for most misdemeanor cases, about $450 for lower-level felonies, and about $1,200 for serious felonies. Some cases that take more time than usual are eligible for a slightly higher rate.
COOK: As a result, the more experienced lawyers in town, the older lawyers in town get off the list. It's not economically feasible.
A report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that, from 2013 to 2023, the number of attorneys willing to serve court-appointed defendants dropped by more than half – and most of that decline has happened since 2020. The study noted that current pay caps mean that attorneys get paid for just a fraction of the time spent on those cases.
In contrast, the lawyers that work at public defender offices are paid salaries by the state. Local governments can also supplement those salaries if they choose.
There are 28 public defender offices across Virginia, including those that serve Charlottesville/Albemarle; Winchester and the northern Shenandoah Valley; and Staunton, Waynesboro, Lexington, and Augusta and Rockbridge counties.
There are 12 jurisdictions with more than 50,000 residents that do not have a public defender office. Harrisonburg-Rockingham is the second largest, behind Henrico County.
TONY WILT: Well, I was approached by some folks back home that saw the need.
Republican Delegate Tony Wilt, who represents Harrisonburg and the eastern portion of Rockingham County in the state legislature, introduced the bill.
WILT: We had … quite a number of indigent criminal defendants. And everyone is due their day in court, right? I mean, we all know that. And that should be a timely day in court.
He said that creating this office would be more cost effective than overhauling the state's entire court-appointed fee system. An impact statement prepared by the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission estimated a fully-staffed office would cost about $2.2 million a year. That would include 10 attorneys and eight support personnel.
WILT: I think, you know, as it goes through the committee process, that folks will see the need and look favorably upon it.
The Valley Justice Coalition is a grassroots organization that's advocating for the public defender office. Chair Harvey Yoder said the low pay for court-appointed attorneys results in defendants getting poorer representation.
HARVEY YODER: We've heard lots of reports of people who have been unable to contact the court-appointed attorneys, attorneys who haven't shown up until the very day of the court hearing, or maybe the day before, and so there's been a lot of complaint about the quality of help that indigent people are getting.
Commonwealth's Attorney Marsha Garst, whose office prosecutes the cases that a public defender would be taking on, is also in support of the bill.
MARSHA GARST: We always want the best defense counsel on the other side so that you don't have appealable issues. The way that you look at the situation is, if you have good counsel on both sides, then you get good results, meaning you have cases that, if you try them to a jury or to a judge, aren't going to be subject to appeal because of the writ of habeas corpus, or poor counsel, or ineffective counsel, or for procedural errors. … And I would say that, right now, we have very good court-appointed attorneys. I disagree that our court-appointed attorneys are not good. … I think that, really, this is a way just to assure – for victims as well, it'll be good for everyone – that we have enough counsel that cases aren't getting delayed.
Cook said the office could offer something else to the community, too.
COOK: To me, the issue that really is important is, we need an institution in town to push back on the other institutions in town. The Commonwealth's Attorney runs the courtroom, and that's just the way it is. And right now, there's no institution that can push back on our Commonwealth's Attorney's office. There's no institution that can push back on the court.
For the public defender office to become a reality, the final bill – and its funding – will have to be approved through the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor.