City public defenders launch pay parity campaign

George Copeland Jr. | 12/6/2019, 6 a.m.
Public defenders who represent nearly half of the people facing criminal charges in Richmond’s court system are tired of being ...
Ms. Shapiro

Public defenders who represent nearly half of the people facing criminal charges in Richmond’s court system are tired of being underpaid state employees.

The cadre of defense attorneys is campaigning to get City Hall to provide the same kind of taxpayer-funded salary supplement that the city has long granted the attorneys who prosecute the alleged offenders and the Richmond Sheriff’s Office that jails those who are convicted.

Employees of the Richmond Public Defend- er’s Office met recently with Lincoln Saunders, Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s chief of staff, and other city officials to make their case to have $1 million included in the next city budget.

The money would be used to raise the pay that the defense attorneys for the indigent now describe as meager state pay.

The results are promising, according to Ashley Shapiro, senior assistant public defender in the Richmond office.

She said Mr. Saunders said “multiple times” during an Oct. 9 meeting that “the mayor supports what we do, and he supports competitive pay.” Ms. Shapiro acknowledged, however, that no commitments were made.

Jim Nolan, the mayor’s press secretary, confirmed that “as a supporter of criminal justice reform, the mayor believes public defenders should be compensated more competitively.” “We look forward to continuing discussions with them to address their concerns as the upcoming budget cycle gets underway,” Mr. Nolan said. Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette W. McEachin, the city’s chief prosecutor, agrees

that public defenders should get higher pay. “I support them receiving a higher salary. They are just as important in the criminal justice system as prosecutors,” she said.

Public defenders also have reached out to members of Richmond City Council. New 5th District Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch already has voiced her support for pay parity, according to Deputy Public Defender Alanna Trivelli.

Public defenders say the measure, if approved, could finally allow them to achieve pay parity with the city’s prosecutors.

Richmond currently provides the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office with $7 million annually to enable staff to be paid more than the state provides. The deputy and assistant prosecutors who handle most cases currently average salaries that are 37 percent higher than public defenders, according to Ms. Shapiro. She noted that the annual salaries of assistant and deputy public defenders in Richmond currently range from $53,000 to $87,489, with the public defender or manager, Tracy E. Paner, paid about $121,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the city-supplemented annual salaries of assistant and deputy commonwealth’s attorneys range from $74,843 to $140,466, with Mrs. McEachin paid $206,125.

Prosecutors make substantially more as a result of the city’s help, Ms. Shapiro said, with newly hired prosecutors often making more than public defenders with more than a decade of experience.

Overall, salaries for Richond prosecutors are on average nearly 40 percent higher than those of the public defenders, Ms. Shapiro said.

The issue is fairness. In 2018, Richmond public defenders repesented people in 9,000 cases, a big chunk of the 4,000 cases filed in Richmond Circuit Court and the nearly 16,000 cases heard in General District Court.