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Bill boosting pay for public defenders moves forward, but its future is unclear

Public defender offices are often stretched thin, although that may change soon. A bill currently under consideration in Richmond might help level the playing field and increase their salaries.

Local governments often give supplemental pay to prosecutors. But they don't always show the same generosity to public defenders. That's why Senator Adam Ebbin of Alexandria has a bill that would require any local government that gives a pay bump to commonwealth's attorneys also give supplemental compensation to public defenders.

"Public defenders are paid so much less than commonwealth's attorneys they're less likely to have attorneys with extensive experience," Ebbin explains.

Michael McMillin with Justice Forward Virginia says that tips the scales of justice.

"The way that the pay works in Virginia and in a lot of places, is that one side of those scales of justice is being paid a lot more than the other side," says McMillin.

Local governments say it would be a bad idea for the General Assembly to force an unfunded mandate that could cost anywhere from $120,000 a year to $1.5 million a year. Phyllis Errico with the Virginia Association of Counties says local governments agree that there's an issue that needs to be fixed but they disagree with Ebbin's approach.

"Localities would not have the funding and would end up having to withdraw their supplements for the commonwealth's attorneys," explains Errico.

Ebbin's bill has already made it through the first step in the process this week, although it would eventually have to be approved by a Republican-led House of Delegates.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.