A bill to create a public defender office in Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park has passed a major hurdle in the Virginia General Assembly.
On Feb. 3, legislation creating the local office passed the Senate 33-7 and passed the House of Delegates 100-0, according to the Virginia legislative information system.
The proposed office would hire 23 lawyers and 11 staff members and provide legal representation for people who can’t afford a lawyer to defend them in court. With initial funding included in the governor’s proposed budget for the two years starting July 1, advocates hope the office will be created in 2020.
If finalized, Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park would become the 26th jurisdiction in Virginia to establish a public defender office.
The House bill introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-2nd, will head to the Senate for consideration and the Senate bill introduced by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th, will head to the House.
“I know all the many benefits a public defender office offers,” Foy said. “Prince William is the only Northern Virginia jurisdiction that doesn’t have a public defender office, and it’s the second most populous [with] close to half a million residents.”
In his budget proposal, Gov. Ralph Northam included $2.7 million per year for fiscal years 2021 and 2022 to partly fund the creation of a public defender office in the county. Surovell said the county would be responsible for matching about 15%, or $405,000. That is expected to be the annual budget going forward, he said.
The proposed public defender office has been advocated for by the Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, or VOICE, a nonprofit in Northern Virginia comprised of dozens of faith and civic organizations that aims to help middle and low-income communities. Foy is currently a court-appointed attorney in Prince William County. But when she was first elected in 2017, she was the first public defender to be elected to the Virginia General Assembly, she said.
“I wanted to become a public defender, because I saw that some people’s access to justice was dependent upon their area code, their bank account and sometimes, their race,” she told InsideNoVa in January. “I became an attorney, because I wanted to fight for justice, fairness and equality.”
She was a public defender in Arlington County for three years until 2018.
“We have a duty to protect everyone’s civil rights and that is my job, [to ensure] that their constitutional rights aren’t infringed on and they get the best representation that they can,” Foy said.