Monday, January 31, 2005
Editorial: Stingy court-appointment fees limit access to justice
For legal fairness, lawmakers should improve indigent representation in Virginia.
From the RoundTable blog
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Fortunately, some lawmakers in this year's General Assembly session want to give the indigent legal defense system a financial infusion. The next logical step, of course, is to create revenue sources to fund those sensible proposals.
That's where a good idea strays off course.
Legislators still have to determine how to finance their proposals, which would increase pay by more than 50 percent for lawyers who represent indigent criminals and would boost funding for the state's public defenders offices by 8 percent.
The pending legislation happens to require funding for the criminal justice system, but the demand could just as well be for roads, mental health, the environment or the arts.
Whatever the issue, Virginia has basic needs, but lawmakers are loath to meet them sufficiently.
The sponsor of one of the bills, Del. Richard Black, according to The Washington Post "is considered one of the legislature's most fiscally conservative members."
The Loudoun County Republican is a former judge advocate in the military, and his commitment to shoring up Virginia's indigent legal defense system is admirable. But he and other like-minded fiscal conservatives should see in the hobbled system the consequences of their philosophy of parsimonious public finance.
In tight-fisted Richmond, the legislation to help shore up the indigent legal system might not be an easy sale, although it is an important one.
For more than a decade, Virginia has ranked last in the nation in court-appointment fees.
Such low payment provides little incentive for lawyers to mount a thorough defense for their clients.
Lawmakers are justified in seeking an improved public legal defense system. But having a good idea doesn't go far enough. Equally important is the commitment to support it.