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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A Virginia lawmaker is proposing increasing pay for court-appointed attorneys in an effort to improve the criminal justice system.

Delegate-elect Atoosa Reaser, D-Loudoun County, has pre-filed a bill that would raise Virginia’s pay cap for court-appointed attorneys — those assigned to defend individuals who can’t afford representation.

A state report found that the state’s pay caps for court-appointed attorneys are currently lower than neighboring states, leading to fewer attorneys taking court appointments. 

“If there was more money available, then I think more people would be willing to do it,” said Richmond criminal defense attorney Russ Stone. “Secondly, the people that are doing it would be able to put more time into the cases — to properly represent individuals.” 

If passed, the bill would raise the pay cap for misdemeanor cases tried in a district court from $120 to $500, while also increasing the cap for attorneys defending felony cases in a circuit court. 

“You’re only getting $120 for a case that, if someone walked in your door and wanted to hire you, you might charge them two or three thousand dollars,” Stone said. “You are essentially at minimum wage at that point. If you are doing a DUI for $120, and you put 5 hours into that DUI, you are down around $20 an hour at that point.” 

Additionally, Stone said raising the cap is critical to ensuring the criminal justice system is functioning properly. 

“Our system of justice is called ‘adversarial,’ which means the notion is that one side fights for this, one side fights for the opposite — and in that fight, the truth comes out,” Stone said. “But if one side isn’t properly able to fight, then the other side is going to win an inordinate amount of times. “ 

Both the current and proposed laws allow lawyers to request waivers for additional pay if cases are too costly to defend.