- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

RICHMOND The average prison sentence for a Virginia defendant with a court-appointed lawyer is 1.6 years longer than that of a person charged with the same offense and represented by a retained attorney or a public defender.
That was the chief finding of a Virginia Crime Commission report released Tuesday.
At the root of the problem are the paltry fees paid to lawyers appointed to represent defendants who cannot afford to hire counsel. Maximum fees range from $120 for a misdemeanor to $1,196 for a felony punishable by more than 20 years in prison.
Lawyers generally collect slightly less than the maximum because the state routinely fails to provide adequate funding, the report said. There is no cap, however, in capital murder cases.
"When it comes to fees paid to court-appointed counsel, Virginia's rates are amongst the lowest in the nation, comparable only to Mississippi," the report says.
Also, Virginia and Mississippi are the only states that do not allow judges to waive the cap for attorneys who can demonstrate they deserve more money, the report says.
The commission delayed action on the report's most significant recommendations, including proposed legislation to adopt a procedure for waiving the fee limits.
Richmond lawyer Stephen Benjamin said in an interview that the study demonstrated the system's unfairness to indigent defendants in localities not served by public defenders. Virginia has 20 public-defender offices serving 47 localities.
"The study proves what everyone knows you get what you pay for," Mr. Benjamin said. "Justice shouldn't depend on wealth."
Delegate Morgan Griffith, a lawyer who serves on the commission, said the state fee is so meager that he turns it down on the rare occasions he is appointed to represent an indigent defendant.
"If the commonwealth wants me to do pro bono work, I'm happy to do it. But let's not pretend I'm getting paid," said Mr. Griffith, Salem Republican.
Even more troubling than the sentencing disparity, Mr. Benjamin said, is the potential of defendants being wrongly convicted. Last month, Mr. Benjamin helped win the release of a New Kent County man who served 11 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. The man's trial attorneys were appointed to the case.
The analysis of 19,000 criminal cases was conducted by the commission staff and the College of William and Mary. It found that defendants represented by appointed counsel received sentences averaging 8.5 years. The average for other defendants was 6.9 years.
On another matter, the commission recommended that the General Assembly spend $27 million over the next four years to put a police officer in every middle school and high school.
Kim Echelberger of the commission staff said Virginia now has only 132 school resource officers trained law enforcement officers employed by police or sheriff's departments and stationed in the schools.
Nineteen school districts have security officers who are school employees and in some cases are sworn "conservators of the peace," which gives them authority to make arrests despite their lack of police training.
The commission said arrest authority should be limited to school resource officers, whose duties could be supplemented by security officers.

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