When someone is accused of a crime in Loudoun, and can’t afford to spend thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars defending themselves in court, they turn to the Office of the Public Defender.
But the attorney who represents them will likely be paid much less than the prosecutor facing them—and in many cases, too little to stay in the job.
As county supervisors begin work on Loudoun’s next annual budget, local attorneys—many of them current or former public defenders—are asking the board to supplement public defenders’ salaries, to bring their salaries closer to those of prosecutors.
“I think it’s the best job that I’ve ever had,” said Kelly King, a former public defender. “It was a job that I carried with me 24 hour a day, that I took home at night thinking about clients, that I woke up in cold sweat thinking about the responsibility that I carried in that office.” That responsibility, she said, included concern for their liberty, their well-being, and their futures.
“Sometimes we are the only voice that our clients have,” King said. “These are clients that are often invisible, that often slip through the cracks.”
But she was one of many former attorneys who told supervisors she had to leave the office—not because she was burned out, or didn’t love the work, but because she could not afford to stay.
Tabatha Blake was among the current public defenders who said she relies in part on her partner’s income to support the family. And, she said, she and her husband are getting ready for their first child.
“The reality is, as much as I love this job, unless something does change in the future, financially, I won’t be able to stay in it and be able to support ourselves and our future children,” Blake said.
During recent budget public hearings, person after person spoke to supervisors of the passion and talent that Loudoun’s public defenders bring to the job, and one after another said that their low wages drive those attorneys out of the job.
According to a letter from Loudoun’s Chief Public Defender, Lori O’Donnell, new attorneys in her office make $59,523. According to people in the office, they do not get annual raises. By comparison, a new attorney in the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney starts out at $65,135 and can expect annual raises.
The gap widens as their careers progress—a deputy public defender with 14 years on the job makes $93,703. A deputy commonwealth’s attorney makes $126,103.
Public defenders also had an advocate from the other side of the courtroom: Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, Loudoun’s top prosecutor. She said the criminal justice system is like a stool—victims and the accused at the seat, with prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges as the three legs.
“If we don’t have three strong legs, we don’t have a good system. We have an imbalanced system,” Biberaj said. She added: “If there is an imbalance in the representation in the court, bad things happen.”
And with so many attorneys beginning their careers in the public defender’s office—even if they leave—many attorneys have argued that paying enough to attract talented young attorneys is good for the legal community overall.
“As an attorney in the private sector, my firm has an interest in making sure that that the Public Defender’s Office maintains the level of talent that they have right now,” said Nasir Aboreden, a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney. “Public defenders are in court every single day. They are interacting with the judges, they are interacting with the prosecutors every day, so, really, they are the face of criminal defense. So, we in the private sector have an interest in making sure that they are well-funded, and they have the resources they need to do their job.”
While the Office of the Public Defender is funded by the state government, other localities in areas with a high cost of living provide supplemental funding to raise those salaries. Loudoun also already provides a local supplement to state salaries in other offices, such as in the General District Court and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
And according to O’Donnell, Loudoun is the only Northern Virginia locality that does not provide a salary supplement for public defenders.
O’Donnell’s request adds up to just under $200,000, and would amount to a 20 percent salary supplement to the office’s payroll, which is just under a million dollars.
“Low pay has always been an issue for our office, but it’s becoming a crisis for our office,” O’Donnell told supervisors at a budget work session Thursday, March 5. “I cannot keep quality attorneys. I am constantly dealing with turnover. We cannot provide the services we do to your citizens if we’re constantly have to hire and retrain, and hire and retrain.”
Supervisors voted 8-0-1 to include funding for public defenders in their budget, setting that money up for possible inclusion in the final county budget as the county board continues work on the budget. Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin), an attorney, said he was “pretty disappointed in the state, quite frankly.”
“If we’re going to have [a public defender’s office], they need to ante up and put the funds forward, and it’s really disappointing that this has gone on for so long,” Kershner said.
‘Public defense is a calling’
Senior Assistant Public Defender Adam Pouilliard said “public defense is a calling—it’s something that people are drawn to.”
“It draws people who are passionate about the work, who believe in the work, into a place where you are choosing between having substantially less, and maybe doing something that you believe in less,” Pouilliard said.
And, he warned, a county that pays its prosecutors better than its defense attorneys indicates “that we as a county value the prosecution of individuals more than we value the protection of people’s rights. Because at a base level, the reason why people get into public defense is, we believe strongly, one, that people should not be judged by the worst day of their life in many cases; but two, the protection of the Fourth, Fifth, 15th Amendments are critical to the day-to-day functioning of our society.”
During his interview, Pouilliard was waiting anxiously to hear the jury’s decisions on one of the office’s most prominent recent clients, Hassan M. Gailani, who was subsequently sentenced to 77 years in prison for fatally shooting two people at a hookah bar in Sterling. The defense had argued he was not guilty by reason of insanity.
Through the public defender’s office, Pouilliard said, Gailani had received years of legal work that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the private sector.
And while the Gailani case was particularly labor-intensive for the office, each attorney in the office carries a caseload of more than a hundred cases, he said. “You’re talking about almost all of the people who come through our criminal justice system.”
“They’re people who are not millionaires, who need high quality, experienced defense attorneys who can talk to them about what their options are and try to execute on those options,” Pouilliard said. “There are a lot of fly-by-night defense attorneys who are doing work at lower costs—and there are many who do work at lower rates who do fantastic work—but there are also people who are taking very large sums of money who do not have the required experience.”
And, he said, public defenders are an important part of protecting people’s rights.
“Our judges do not want to convict people who did not commit crimes, that’s the reality of it, and the best way to ensure that that doesn’t happen is to ensure we have a strong public defender’s office,” he said.
Supervisors are scheduled to adopt a budget in early April.