The head of Prince William County’s first public defender’s office hopes to begin accepting cases in September.
The office helping defendants in Prince William, Manassas and Manassas Park who can’t afford to hire an attorney was created through a new state law earlier this year.
Chief Public Defender Tracey Lenox said in the next few months she’ll continue hiring lawyers, investigators and other staff, and hopes the office will begin accepting cases in September.
Hired in May, Lenox has so far brought on seven lawyers to her team.
“These clients are deserving of the best possible defense we can give them,” Lenox told InsideNoVa on Tuesday.
The office is planned to have 24 full-time lawyers, including Lenox, she said. The office is estimated to have 35 employees in total. Lenox is working on hiring lawyers who are passionate about helping people who can’t afford legal representation in court, along with investigators, paralegals and other support staff.
The office is temporarily housed at 7900 Sudley Road in Manassas while waiting for permanent office space in the same building, which should be ready as early as October, but at least by Jan. 1, Lenox said.
She hopes her office is accountable to the community, which was supportive and advocated for the office, she said.
“I want people to check in and see how we’re doing,” she said.
The public defender office was created with the support of community groups, led by Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, or VOICE, a nonprofit in Northern Virginia composed of dozens of faith and civic organizations that aims to help middle and low-income communities.
In February, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors approved allocating $350,000 to the office’s creation, which will supplement the state funding, about $2.7 million per year for fiscal years 2021 and 2022.
“My goal is by Jan. 1, we are taking cases as public defenders,” she said.
Public defenders will see their clients within at least 48 hours of their client’s arraignment, Lenox said, adding her goal is to have public defenders see their clients within 24 to 36 hours to hear their story and to start working on their case.
“You get information,” she said. “Find out if they have a job they may be at risk of losing, if they have a minor child… there a million different ways your life gets turned upside down when you’re arrested.”
Public defenders will ask clients if they know of any witnesses or other evidence, Lenox said.
“A public defender is going to make sure we’re following up on these things that can be time consuming,” Lenox said.
Lenox has practiced as a criminal defense attorney in and around Prince William County for more than 26 years. She ran in Democratic primary last year for commonwealth's attorney.
Currently, the court appoints an attorney for people who cannot afford legal representation. Public defenders cannot represent multiple people accused in a crime, so Lenox expects about 25% to 35% of cases will be assigned to court-appointed attorneys when the public defender office is operating at full capacity.
The Prince William County region is the 26th jurisdiction in Virginia to establish a public defender office. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-2nd, who is running for governor in 2021, and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th, introduced legislation for the creation of the office. 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.