June 27, 2008 — The Office of the Public Defender asked the Legislature Thursday for a 2009 budget of $4.9 million Thursday, a substantial increase over Gov. John deJongh Jr.'s budget recommendation of $3 million, mostly to bring salaries more in line with prosecutor salaries in the Attorney General's office.
"The Department of Justice sees a substantial salary increase this year," Chief Public Defender Harold Willocks said at a Finance Committee budget hearing in Frederiksted. "In 2009 their base salary for attorneys with no years … start off at $72,000, which when compared to the Public Defender's Office is tantamount to what we pay someone who has been practicing law for eight years. There is an issue of fairness to it."
Willocks said the overwhelming majority of criminal cases in the territory are represented through the Public Defender's office, which is obligated to represent all defendants who say they cannot afford legal representation. With less than half the number of attorneys and salaries considerably below that in the Attorney General's office, the Public Defender's office is hard-pressed from all directions, he argued.
"I know in an election year the populace doesn't want to hear about the defense of quote-unquote criminals," he said. "But in a democracy, defending the indigent is a hallmark of a just society."
Willocks said his office does not submit a budget to the governor, and hence his request for more money than recommended should not be taken as a criticism.
"In my 16 or 17 years with the office, we've never submitted a budget to OMB (Office of Management and Budget)," he said. "I believe they make an estimate based upon the prior year's budget."
Michael Joseph, chairman of the Public Defender Administrative Board, said the office is a semi-autonomous agency and should not go through OMB because it would create a conflict of interest for the same office to oversee both prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Senators were sympathetic, but emphasized budgetary realities.
`You should be well matched," Sen. James Weber III said. "And even if you are undermatched physically, in manpower, perhaps you can be economically better matched. It is after all to ensure justice."
"I understand your need," Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville said. "But this is reflective of the politics. If the administration says this is their budget submittal, to increase in one place we will have to find somewhere to cut. We will have to tax from Peter to pay for Paul."
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, the committee's chair, was supportive but made no promises. "We will try the best to see what we can do," Nelson said. "No employer can match the cost increases happening in the territory right now. But we can be fair in the equitable distribution of the resources we do have."
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