July 23, 2003 – The ability of government-paid attorneys to defend poor clients accused of major crimes is being hampered by inadequate funding, Harold Willocks, chief public defender, told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, and if his agency's budget is cut any further, it may be unable to assist clients accused of rape and murder.
Appealing for more money in the Fiscal Year 2004 budget of the Office of the Public Defender, Willocks said if the agency's appropriation is reduced, "we'll have no choice but to cut out some of the services," especially murder cases and aggravated rape cases, "the reason being that I can't in good conscience expose my attorneys to an ineffective counsel."
Willocks also told the lawmakers that $400,000 in federal funds earmarked for the Public Defender's Office is being withheld by the Office of Management and Budget and announced his intention to obtain those funds. "That is creating a very serious crisis in our office," he said. "You're talking about $400,000 out of a mere $2.5 million," he said.
Attempts to reach Ira Mills, OMB director, for comment Tuesday on the allocation and disbursement of the federal funds were unsuccessful.
Given the high level of violent crime in the Virgin Islands, Willocks said, the government faces a dilemma — whether to spend more money defending criminals being prosecuted to the full extent of the law, or to defend less thoroughly because of limited resources. Legal services for murder cases can run between $30,000 to $40,000, he said, and the dilemma already is making a difference, especially on St. Croix, he said.
"On St. Croix, we're short staffed, seriously short staffed," he said. "Because of our budgetary constraints, a lot of times we're forced to hire someone with less experience than we really want. Currently on the island of St. Croix I'm the only one trying murder cases."
He continued: "Hopefully, with this august body's help, there might be change in which we can have one of the more senior attorneys trained to do murder cases."
Willocks said his concern about providing an adequate defense to clients who cannot afford the cost of legal services comes at a time when the Public Defender's Office has a number of cases requiring specialized services. In one case, he said, a DNA expert is charging $1,600 to provide needed records.
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