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Smooth sailing for public defender plan

A proposal to create a public defender office for Prince William County has won two favorable votes already at the General Assembly.

The House Courts criminal laws subcommittee approved the bill Jan. 17 without opposition after advocates said it would improve the quality of representation for criminal defendants in the state’s second most populous county.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, sponsor of House Bill 366, said replacing court-appointed attorneys with a PD office could reduce the time that defendants spend in jail waiting for their lawyers to be notified. Defense lawyers would have more resources, she added.

“The community would be better served with a public defender’s office where there are sentencing advocates, where there are administrative assistants, there are investigators and a number of full-time, highly regulated and trained attorneys,” Carroll Foy said.

The Prince William County PD office would open with 24 attorneys and an overall staff of 35, said Maria Jankowski, deputy executive director of the Virginia Indigent Defense Committee.

Virginia has 25 public defender offices now, covering 53 of the state’s 113 political jurisdictions, Jankowski said.

Funding appears to be secure. Subcommittee chair Michael Mullin said money for the PD office is in the governor’s budget and the project is a priority for the head of the House Appropriations Committee.

A Senate version of the PD office proposal emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee Jan. 15 on a 9-1 vote with Sen. Ryan McDougle voting against it and Sen. Mark Obenshain abstaining. The Senate version is sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon.