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Public Defender Makes His Case for Funding

July 20, 2006 – The Legislature needs to pass a law to expunge certain criminal records, said Territorial Public Defender Harold Willocks as the Senate Finance Committee Thursday discussed his agency's request for $4.2 million in the 2007 fiscal year budget.
"The Virgin Islands is one of the few places that does not have one," he said. He said that without a law to strike some offenses from a person's record, it's difficult for youths who commit minor offenses, such as vandalism or petty theft, to put the situation behind them. He said that people with such records find it difficult to find jobs.
"For the rest of his life, his conviction is going to follow him," Willocks said. He said that the youth may then decide to continue on a criminal path.
Finance Committee members spent some of the meeting discussing Willock's request for funding for prevention programs. He said the agency previously had a summer program funded with federal dollars, but that money has dried up.
Sen. Louis P. Hill, the Finance Committee chairman, observed that many departments and agencies run similar programs, but Willocks insisted that the one previously run by the Public Defender's Office was targeted at its clients.
Willocks said the agency's program could provide a better understanding of its clients, versus other programs.
"We can show them the result of bad behavior," Public Defender's Office board member Elmo Adams said.
Hill wasn't convinced and suggested that the office could refer its clients to a department better equipped to handle prevention issues.
Although the agency's budget request is $1.2 million less than last year, Willocks said the reduction came about because in 2005 he requested money to build an office on St. Thomas. He didn't get the money and said that he will look for other sources of funding for that project. According to the Post Auditor's report, the agency pays $96,000 a year in rent for its St. Thomas facility. It owns the building on St. Croix but has a mortgage payment of $130,500 a year.
Willocks said that costs keep rising.
"It costs $25,000 to $125,000 for a murder case," he said.
He said rape cases are very expensive to defend in part because of the cost of DNA testing.
He said his office also has to pay for transcripts, expert witnesses and forensic investigation. And he said that his office also has to pay the expenses incurred for appeals.
In Willocks' prepared remarks, which he did not read at the meeting, he said that his office currently has 10 murder cases and 15 rape cases going to trial in this fiscal year.
He said that if his office doesn't get the funding in his budget request so it can hire more attorneys and pay expenses, the office's ability to defend indigent clients will be seriously compromised. "We're at a crossroads," he said.
He also said that the office needs an attorney to specialize in juvenile cases.
Willocks said that the St. Croix office has a staff of 16, including four attorneys. St. Thomas has 17 people on staff, including six attorneys.
When asked why the office needed so many supporting staff, he pointed out that the attorneys don't go to trial by themselves.
"A private law firm would have a staff of 75 for our case load," he pointed out.
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