The Long Hard Road
Chuck Zauzig, VTLA President
This was a break through year for indigent defense reform. The 2007 General Assembly approved waivers (for the first time) of the caps on court-appointed fees, the budget included more than $8 million to fund the waivers, public defenders received large pay increases and caseloads were reduced by the creation of many new public defender positions.
Amidst the celebrating over these recent successes it is easy to forget the long, hard road that brought us to this place and the need to continue down that road. Amidst the celebrating, it is essential to remember that we have achieved what we have only because we worked together and that to achieve what we must will require more of the same. Any one group or individual claiming that what they did represented the critical act or step along this road is, at best, over-reaching.
For more than 20 years many dedicated people and groups, including VTLA, worked to pull Virginia out of 50th place in funding for indigent defense. Letters were written, task forces were formed, reports were issued, legislators were lobbied – and yet, Virginia remained dead last. It would seem that this embarrassing and unacceptable situation would have spurred the legislature and policymakers into action. But, it didn’t.
About six years ago the VTLA, the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Virginia Interfaith Center, the ABA’s Mid-Atlantic Juvenile Defender Center, Virginia CURE, the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission and other groups sat down and began to map out a plan to make reform of Virginia’s indigent defense system a reality.
This diverse Coalition obtained grant funding from the ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense with the understanding that one of the Coalition members would administer the grant funds and house the Coalition’s staff. By October 1, 2002 the Virginia Indigent Defense Coalition (VIDC) was up and running within the VTLA and the Virginia Trial Lawyer Foundation was overseeing the ABA grant money.
Within a few months the Coalition issued a report card on Virginia’s indigent defense system and the media started paying attention to the dire situation in Virginia. Those first news articles focused attention on the severity of the problem. But it wasn’t enough to get the legislature’s attention – at least not yet.
In the next few years several things happened – a comprehensive (and scathing) report was issued on Virginia by the American Bar Association, the coalition co-sponsored a statewide summit on indigent defense with University of Richmond Law School, letter writing campaigns took place, more and more indigent defense reform articles and editorials appeared in newspapers throughout the state.
Throughout all of these initiatives VTLA remained steadfastly committed to helping reform indigent defense. In addition to providing space for VIDC, VTLA continued to provide the Coalition with foundation support for its grants. In March 2005, Richard Railey, Jr., became president of VTLA and declared that indigent defense reform would be the organization’s top legislative priority.
In the early fall of 2005, VTLA organized a small legislative group that included Betsy Edwards, Executive Director of the coalition and Ann Leigh Kerr from the Virginia Bar Association. This group worked with Governor Warner’s staff, with the Chief Justice and Virginia Supreme Court staff and with key legislators, including Lacey Putney, Bob McDonnell and Ken Stolle, to get increased funding for indigent defense.
This year this group expanded to include Governor Kaine, now Attorney General McDonnell, the Virginia State Bar and others.
In 2006, when Gerry Schwartz became VTLA’s president he took up the mantle of reform, and now I am leading VTLA’s effort to improve indigent defense in Virginia.
I’m very confident that VTLA’s work on this important effort will continue next year, when Andrew Sacks takes over our organization.
VTLA didn’t get involved in indigent defense reform by accident. Rather we got involved because we couldn’t look the other way. Our indigent defense system (and really our criminal justice system) is critical to who we are as Virginians and members of the bar in the Commonwealth.
As trial lawyers we know better than anyone how important it is for everyone, regardless of income, to receive a fair trial and a vigorous defense. Our involvement in reform has been a long one. However, we haven’t reached the end of the road.
Many problems in Virginia’s indigent defense system still need correcting. Court-appointed lawyers are still getting paid $120 to handle felonies in juvenile court. Requests for an investigator in court-appointed cases still have to be made in open court, and we still don’t have enough funding for the waivers approved in this past session.
The next few years will be critical in making further improvements to Virginia’s indigent defense system. No one believes that success is going to come easily. However, VTLA is steadfastly committed to continuing down the road until fair trials are a reality for all of Virginia’s citizens no matter how hard that may be or how long it may take.