Prince William County, Manassas, Manassas Park, and all the towns now have a Public Defender.
On Wednesday, September 2, Woodbridge District Supervisor Margaret Franklin hosted a virtual forum along with Chief Public Defender Tracey Lenox and Deputy Chief Public Defender Jenny Miller, as well as Occoquan District Supervisor Kenny Boddye and EJ Scott from the Prince William County NAACP.
They had over 40 participants, according to Franklin.
Franklin said she and Boddye are invested in the office because of it how affects communities of color.
Public defenders are charged with making sure residents have adequate legal defense no matter what, Boddye explained. “We don’t believe that there should be a two-tiered justice system just because of your income or access,” Boddye said.
Tracey Lenox heads the county’s public defender office and has been a criminal defense attorney for 27 years. “It’s patently and obviously an unfair system,” Lenox said.
When she looks out in courts, she said, it’s” predominantly brown and black faces.” Seeing this prompted her to run launch an unsuccessful bid to be Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney in 2019. Lenox lost in a Primary Election to current Commonwealth Attorney Amy Ashworth.
Lenox and her Deputy Public Defender, Jenny Miller, are now hiring staff to fill the newly formed office, and diversity is a priority. Lenox said that in Northern Virginia, public defenders offices only had one African American staff member when they started.
Lenox and Miller hired the first African American senior supervisor in Northern Virginia, Ben Talley. Since then, they hired two more African Americans and so in a month, they’ve quadrupled the number of African American staff members in Northern Virginia.
Lenox said she’s only hiring people who are true defenders at heart, she would rather have inexperienced people she can train who are passionate about the role.
The community has wanted this for decades, Lenox said. Lenox the credited voters with flipping Prince William County’s delegation in the General Assembly in Richmond flipped from Republican to Democrat for making it possible for the creation of the new office.
The newly formed office is located at 7900 Sudley Road, near Manassas. Currently, they are in suite 805 on the 8th floor, but they will be on the entire 7th floor when the office is fully built out, Genevieve Miller said
The public defender is assigned to every indigent case except in case there’s a conflict – which is about 30% of the time, Lenox said. An example would be a robbery with two people. The defender can’t “do both”, so one person gets the public defender and one gets a court-appointed attorney.
The office began taking some cases in September. It will spend the next 10 weeks spending training of all new assistant public defenders. The office will slowly increase the number and types of cases, and is expected to be able to handle every case assigned to it by January 1, 2021.
“We will begin to really accelerate the number of cases we take in mid-November once we finally get into our full office space,” said Lennox.
Prince William County is the largest locality in Virginia that does not have a public defenders’ office. Public defenders’ offices are state-funded and provide legal representation to individuals who can’t afford a lawyer.
The state is providing $5.4 million in funding for the new office over the next two years for 35 full-time positions including 24 attorneys, according to the Prince William Times,
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-2, Stafford, Woodbridge) and Sen. Scott Surovell (D-36 Lorton, Stafford, Woodbridge), carried legislation to create the new office during this year’s legislative session. The new office received support from Gov. Ralph Northam and was passed with bipartisan support in the House of Delegates and state Senate.
The Prince William Board of County Supervisors included $350,000 in their 2021 budget for a 15% salary supplement for the public defenders’ office. The boost in salary will make attorneys’ salaries more competitive with other Northern Virginia localities, the Prince William Times also reported.