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Legal Aid Agencies Make Their Cases for Funding

July 29, 2004 – The head of the Public Defender's Office told the Senate Finance Committee in his fiscal year 2005 budget presentation that he is looking to save money for the V.I. government by constructing a building. The president of the board of Legal Services of the V.I. said he is still looking for most of his agency's appropriation for FY 2004.
Public Defender's Office
Harold Willocks, the territory's chief public defender, abandoned his prepared statement on Wednesday to ask for $1.75 million to build a three-story building on St. Thomas to house the offices of the public defender. He said the move would save the government about $96,000 a year in rent.
Willocks, whose office is charged with defending indigent clients in criminal cases, said he could minimize construction costs by using prison labor. He also said he has saved enough money for a down payment but wants "something tangible to start the process."
As for defending clients, Willocks said his office is way ahead of the national average in its win/loss ratio. Nationally, he said, public defenders win between 25 and 50 percent of their cases, while his office has a 75 to 80 percent win rate.
Sen. Ronald Russell, a lawyer, questioned whether that is a good thing, since Willocks' office is defending persons charged with crimes at a time when crime is a big concern in the territory. Willocks said the figures represented only those cases that went to trial and did not take into consideration plea bargains.
Willocks also pointed out that his office has a "constitutional mandate … to provide effective representation to its clients."
He further said in his prepared statement that "the courts now appoint the office to [represent] 100 percent of the indigent clients," an increase of 25 percent from previous practice. Given that fact along with increases in serious crimes such as murder, rape and kidnapping, his office has no choice but to expand, he said.
Recognizing government fiscal constraints and seeking to save money for the new building, Willocks said, he had a videoconferencing system installed to reduce travel costs. But what he also sees as a cost-reduction strategy is preventing crime in the first place. He said he works closely with the Law Enforcement Planning Commission and programs such as the V.I. History, Geography and Civics Bowl — which he said is designed to foster pride and a sense of belonging in young people and, hence, decrease crime.
In his statement Willocks also said mandatory sentencing often forces clients to choose going to trial — a far more expensive proposition than plea bargaining. Whether they are tried and found guilty or plea bargain, the penalty is the same, he explained, so defendants often choose to take their chances at trial in the hope of being acquitted.
The appropriation for the Public Defender's Office was $3.2 million for FY 2004. Willocks' request for $1.5 million for the office building and other increases bring the FY 2005 request to nearly $5 million.
Legal Services
Jesse Bethel Jr., president of the Legal Services of the Virgin Islands board of trustees, told the senators that the agency has received only $145,000 of the $400,000 appropriated for fiscal year 2004, while another $72,500 allotment supposedly is being processed. The fiscal year will end on Sept. 30.
If Legal Services receives another $72,500 for the fourth quarter, "our total allotment will be $290,000" – or less than 75 percent of the appropriation, Bethel said.
The agency, which provides legal support to low-income and otherwise disadvantaged clients in civil matters, expended $1.3 million in 2003, he said. It receives most of its funding from the Legal Services Corp., he explained.
Legal Services is bound by federal income eligibility guidelines, Bethel said, although the elderly and victims of domestic violence are exempt from those guidelines. But he said the high cost of living in the Virgin Islands makes the guidelines unfair.
Furthermore, Bethel said, V.I. residents get the short end of the stick on other benefits, too – they are ineligible for Social Security Income, for example. He said in the 30 years he has been in the territory that has been a consistent problem. He told of a woman from off-island who was attending college in the territory. She had a blind child who was receiving SSI benefits, he said, and after she had been in the territory for 30 days, the benefits were cut off.
Bethel said Micronesia gets SSI, and "it's something our delegate should be addressing."
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd said: "Only Congress can change that."
Ironically, a few hours after Bethel testified before the Finance Committee, Delegate Donna M. Christensen said in a speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston that the territory's residents should be covered by the SSI program.
Despite its economic constraints, Legal Services with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture completed Phase I of its Community Law Center Complex on Kongens Gade on St. Thomas. The new offices opened in May 2003.
Bethel said Legal Services has acquired funds from the Public Finance Authority to complete Phase II, which involves the renovation of two historic buildings which together will house a videoconferencing center and the offices of CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, a branch of Legal Services providing legal support for children.
Along with providing legal representation, the agency also emphasizes client "responsibilities and rights," Bethel said.
"The number of clients empowered to help themselves; gain access to the judicial system, education, financial resources, housing; able to eliminate incidents of violence and abuse from their life and to obtain other survival services will assist in measuring outcomes," he said.
"Equal justice is not just a slogan to us … we have made a personal sacrifice to see that it becomes a reality in the community in which we live," Bethel said reading a statement on behalf of LSVI's executive director, Richard Austin. "Stable funding will allow us to increase staff salaries and end the shameful salary disparities, especially for LSVI attorneys."
For more information, visit the Legal Services of the V.I. Web site.
The Finance Committee consists of Sen Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the chair; and Sens. Roosevelt David, Louis Hill, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Luther Renee and Russell. Jn Baptiste was excused. On the Senate floor for most of Wednesday morning's testimony were Malone and Russell. Sen. Liburd, who is not a member of the committee, attended most of the hearing.

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