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OPINION: Suppport Our Equal Pay 

The mayor’s proposed budget did not provide funding for Richmond’s public defenders despite paying prosecutors, but City Council can correct the disparity.

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Clarence Gideon’s spirit is alive and well in Richmond.

In 1961, Gideon was charged with a felony when $55 and a few bottles of beer went missing from a Florida barroom. At trial, Gideon requested the judge appoint a lawyer to represent him, but the trial judge refused. There was no recognized federal constitutional right to a court-appointed public defender at the time. Gideon had to defend himself. It did not go well. He was convicted, primarily on the evidence of a single eyewitness, and he was sent to prison for five years, the maximum sentence he could receive.

But Gideon did not give up. He studied the law while incarcerated and concluded the trial judge had violated his Sixth Amendment rights when he refused to appoint Gideon a lawyer to assist in his defense. He wrote to the Florida attorney general and he wrote to the FBI -- he received no response. He appealed to the Florida Supreme Court and it refused to hear his case. Yet, Gideon persevered. He filed his own petition to the United States Supreme Court. On March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed with him. He did have the right to a lawyer during his criminal trial. And at his retrial, where Gideon had the assistance of an attorney, the jury returned a not guilty verdict within an hour.

The United States Supreme Court changed the course of history when it heard Clarence Gideon’s plea for a public defender. The court stated, “[t]he right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. ... This noble idea cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.” The Supreme Court recognized that if our adversarial legal system is to be of any worth, the quality of someone’s criminal defense cannot be based on the amount of money they have. As a community we value a zealous defense for all of our community members, because everyone should have access to justice, not just the rich.

Each year, on March 18, we remember Clarence Gideon. We remember his persistence against generations of “well, that’s just not how we do things.” We remember the shared community value his case represents: that all of us deserve justice. And we remember that he ignited the public defender system in the United States.

As Richmond’s public defenders, we carry the spirit of Clarence Gideon with us every day as we go to court and jails, to visit and stand up for our clients and their families. We fight to provide a voice for the voiceless in our community. Our clients absolutely rely on us to stand between the all-powerful government and their freedom. But our clients also rely on us to help with housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health needs and the collateral consequences that occur when someone is swept up into our vast and complex criminal court system. Sometimes, our clients rely on us just to be present for them and their families, as the constant grind of the criminal system continues to push members of our community, especially Black and brown members, into jail and prison. At no time has this been more apparent than during the pandemic. We have never stopped advocating for our clients during this chaotic year. Our clients depend on us.

The Commonwealth Attorney’s Office gets city supplements in addition to the state salaries of its attorneys and support staff. So it was disappointing to see that Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposed budget that takes effect later this year did not provide funding for Richmond’s public defenders, despite again including supplements to the state salaries of Richmond’s prosecutors. On average, Richmond prosecutors get paid 37% more when accounting for the city supplement. At the state level, it’s only a few thousand dollars more per position. 

To help balance the scales, we requested $1,051,702 for salary supplements for our entire office to bring us closer to parity with the salaries of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. The Commonwealth Attorney’s Office is in the budget for $8,047,387. That is not all salary supplements to be sure, but it’s for salary, fully funded positions, and other support – none of which public defenders get.  

The unequal balance of resources in the mayor’s proposed budget undermines his claimed commitment to equity in Richmond, because it demonstrates that as a community we do not value that all people involved in the criminal system deserve equal resources or equal justice.

Richmond City Council, however, has the opportunity to correct this disparity in resources and to show that as a community we do value effective and zealous advocacy for all our community members. Richmond City Councilperson Stephanie Lynch is proposing an amendment to the proposed spending plan to help alleviate at least one of the unequal resource allocations in Richmond’s criminal courtrooms: the unequal pay for its public defenders. We support this amendment because it establishes that the Richmond community does believe in equal justice for all.

Please contact your local members of council and ask them to support Lynch’s proposal for equal pay for Richmond’s public defenders.

For more information or to help further with our campaign, please follow @rvaequalpay on Twitter an Instagram or e-mail us for more information: rvaequalpay@gmail.com.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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