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Court-appointed attorneys could see a major pay cap raise

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(The Center Square) — Versions of Senate Bill 356 have passed in both the Virginia House of Delegates and the Senate, raising state compensation fees of court-appointed attorneys for criminal cases.

The bill is another example of legislation written in light of recommendations made by the General Assembly-authorized Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission in a report released in late 2023. The study found that statutory pay caps on court-appointed attorney fees were “embarrassingly low,” as described by one Virginia judge, and the main reason cited for a sharp decline in private attorneys willing to serve as court-appointed attorneys in recent years.

The bill was patroned by Sen. Russet Perry, D-Loudoun, who herself worked opposite court-appointed attorneys as a prosecutor for the local commonwealth’s attorney’s office for years. A companion bill was introduced in the House by fellow Loudoun County representative, Democratic Del. Atoosa Reaser.

Currently, court-appointed attorney fees for defending a misdemeanor are capped at $120 (though attorneys can apply for another $120), meaning the attorney would be paid for about an hour and a half of work at the state’s hourly rate of $90. Most attorneys spend about six and a half hours on a misdemeanor DWI case.

Perry’s bill raises the cap for the defense of most misdemeanors to $330 (a 175% increase) and $597 for DUIs (a 398% increase). For juvenile cases heard in juvenile and domestic relations district court, the cap would increase from $120 to $906, a 655% increase.

The bill also raises the cap for the defense of such crimes in circuit court, but on average, not as drastically as those defended in district court.

Since attorneys won’t be paid as much for probation violation cases, and “there is no proper method to segregate payments … based on initial offenses from those which were based on probation violations of such offenses,” the state Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court was not able to estimate the total cost of these changes to taxpayers.

However, the office estimated the one-time cost of system updates accommodating the new figures and categories to be just over $112,000.

The state paid court-appointed attorneys about $55 million in fiscal year 2023. The Commission estimated in its report that raising pay caps would cost the state an additional $14-70 million in taxpayer dollars per year, depending on how extensively it raised them.

The fee caps have not been raised for more than 20 years, according to the commission’s Justin Brown, limiting Virginia’s court-appointed attorney compensation to one-third or less the compensation levels of some surrounding states.

Reaser’s House version of the bill passed the House via block vote 99-0 and is currently with the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee. Perry’s bill passed the Senate and House with no opposition.

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