Public Defender, Legal Services Are Bargain for Senate

Senators on the Finance Committee on Friday appeared to want Samuel Joseph, chief public defender, to ask for more than his $4.5 million budget request.

One actually told Shelby King Gaddy, the executive director of Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, she should.

Sens. Kurt Vialet and Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly expressed concern about the length of time suspects were kept incarcerated without having a day in court.

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Joseph said some cases from late 2015 had not been resolved yet. But he saw the problem going away, not by increasing funding but with legislation calling for speedy trials. He said he believed all the states had such legislation. He said it would “put their feet to the fire” referring to those in the judicial system responsible for bringing cases to trial.

“The average caseload for trial attorneys ranges from 50 cases to 150 for any given month within a one-year span,” according to Joseph’s testimony.

Sen. Brian Smith, who retired as a probation officer from the V.I. District Court, indicated he thought this was too much. He said when defendants found they were going to be represented by a public defender, they felt doomed. Public defenders could even forget the name of the client to whom they were talking, Smith said.

The current caseload for the Office of the Territorial Public Defender is 797 cases. As of May there were 450 cases pending in the St. Croix district and 347 cases pending in the St. Thomas/St. John district.

Joseph added there are 20 cases being handled by his office on appeal before the V. I. Supreme Court.

Joseph reported his office on St. Croix “suffered catastrophic damages,” and immediately after the hurricanes his employees worked in a tent in the parking lot. Replying to a question from Sen. Novelle Francis, Joseph said after the hurricanes there was a drop in the cases his office had to handle.

The public defenders office has 11 attorneys including Joseph. The St. Croix District Office has four trial attorneys one juvenile attorney, one paralegal and two investigators. The St. Thomas/St. John office has three trial attorneys, one juvenile attorney, one investigator and one appellate attorney that serves both districts. The supporting staff includes: an administrator, an assistant administrator, a fiscal accountant, five legal secretaries, two receptionists, a data entry clerk, a messenger and custodian for a total of 27 employees.

Gaddy, the executive director of Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, on the other hand indicated a dire need for more funding for her agency.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees a lawyer when someone is accused of a crime and that is the role of the Public Defender’s Office; there is no constitutional right to an attorney when someone faces a civil legal problem and that is where Legal Services comes in.

Gaddy was at the hearing to request $1.2 million for her budget. She said that amount would keep Legal Services at the status quo and that was not good. She said many legal needs in the territory were not being met as her staff had to work as in a triage (determining which cases were most urgent and could be resolved and attending to those while other cases wait).

“Our staff is presently at the lowest level in the history of the agency,” she said. “After the retirement of our former executive director we experienced a net loss of another attorney, as I was selected to succeed the executive director and my job as managing attorney is now vacant. Presently,with the replacement of the staff attorney in the St. Croix office, there are only two attorneys in each office, as neither office has a managing attorney.”

This comes at a time when Gaddy predicts a growing demand for Legal Services in the territory.

Legal Services handles cases such as rectifying unsafe rental housing, challenging a wrongful discharge from a job, obtaining a protective court order against an abusive spouse, fighting for custody of children, or securing veterans benefits earned by military service.

“We can expect to have disaster-related legal issues that can last up to 10 years following the hurricane. These include FEMA appeals, contractor disputes, insurance claims, etc,” Gaddy said.

Smith complimented Gaddy on the work Legal Services was doing and told her, “Sometime you have to come here and ask for more.”

Legal Services did not get all the funds it asked for last year. It had asked for $1.2 million but only received $777,000.

“You are not funded to the level you should be,” O’Reilly said.

Gaddy agreed and told the senators the agency is seeking alternative funding.

“We are seeking to engage a fundraiser/development person to allow us to seek funding to hire at least one additional attorney in each office to handle the ongoing types of cases we traditionally handle,” she said. “Moreover, we are constantly in search of other funds to meet the unmet legal needs of our community, this is especially the case following the hurricanes.”

Gaddy said Legal Services fills an important niche.

“It is very challenging to navigate the legal system on your own. Having legal assistance is crucial to protecting the liberty and justice for all for which our nation was founded.”

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