Prosecutors need right tools to do their work properly

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Editor, the News-Herald:

With the ongoing trials of John Muhammad and Lee Malvo people all over this nation will have the opportunity to watch some of Virginia’s best and most experienced prosecutors as they meticulously pursue justice. The efforts of Paul Ebert and Bob Horan serve as a timely reminder of the role of the Commonwealth’s Attorney in protecting public safety and ensuring that criminals are held accountable for the crimes they commit. Unfortunately, however, our ability to protect our communities has been seriously compromised by recent funding reductions by the state.

Virginia has never provided the resources required to provide adequate legal representation to the people of this Commonwealth. The state’s own standards recognize that Virginia has 140 fewer prosecutors than needed just to handle felony cases. It may shock many Virginians to learn that the state leaves it up to localities to decide whether to provide prosecutors to handle such serious matters as drunk driving or domestic violence. A sense of how far behind other states we are can be seen in a comparison of Fairfax County with Montgomery County, Md. These jurisdictions share a similar population and a similar crime rate. Both were touched by the recent crimes for which Muhammad and Malvo are being tried. Yet the staff of 61 prosecutors in Montgomery County is three times the number of prosecutors in Fairfax County.

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Recent budget cuts in Richmond have made this problem even worse. Commonwealth’s Attorneys have seen a 15 percent reduction in state funding. Cuts of over $5 million have forced prosecutors to choose between layoffs and salary reductions. Funding for training and basic office supplies has been eliminated. Money to encourage experienced prosecutors to remain is gone. And all of this occurred at a time that the state actually increased the money it provides for the lawyers assigned to represent the defendants.

This lack of support has consequences. Unlike the Department of Motor Vehicles, we cannot just close our offices two days a week. It is unlikely that the criminals will agree to work a five-day week. As the amount of time available for each decreases, our ability to see that justice is done is diminished. The dilemma of reduced support for Virginia’s prosecutors could not come at a worse time as our communities continue to be plagued with increasing gang and gun violence.

Two years ago Governor Warner wrote each of us personally and told us he recognized that &uot;the Commonwealth has given you critically important jobs to do yet failed to provide even minimal raises, and hence the proper resources you need to get the job done.&uot; He pledged his support to keep Commonwealth’s Attorney’s offices fully staff with well-qualified and highly trained prosecutors. We look forward to the Governor and all members of the General Assembly reaffirming their commitments to public safety by providing the resources to ensure that all citizens of Virginia are represented by Commonwealth’s Attorney’s with the same experience, training and ability we see in the prosecutions of Muhammad and Malvo.

C. Phillips &uot;Phil&uot; Ferguson

Commonwealth’s Attorney, City of Suffolk News Herald

President, Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys