Until this week, Richland County’s public defenders were the lowest paid in the state.
That changed Monday when Richland County Council gave final approval to its two-year budget. The move will raise starting pay for lawyers who represent low-income defendants charged with crimes up to the level of junior prosecutors in the solicitor’s office.
Previously, a public defender could expect to make $39,000 a year, compared to $52,000 for an assistant solicitor.
Councilwoman Dalhi Myers proposed the move, which will add an extra $517,735 to the budget for the public defender’s office. As an attorney herself, she said she was embarrassed to learn that public defenders in Richland County were so underpaid. Funding the two offices at an equal level is not only fairer to the attorneys, she said, but to the people they represent.
“It’s a great day for poor people in Richland County, who might have their freedom taken away,” Myers said. “I think the system works best when both sides are well-equipped.”
Fielding Pringle, the chief public defender for the Fifth Judicial Circuit, asked for the increase in this year’s budget. She had made raising salaries a goal when she took over the county public defender’s office last year.
“Fairness is all we ask for in the criminal justice system and Dalhi Myers stood up for fairness ... in making this motion,” Pringle said.
Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson also supported the motion, hoping a stronger public defender’s office could help reduce the number of inmates held before trial at the county’s Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.
“I think they don’t have enough attorneys, and the ones they do have are overworked,” Dickerson said. She hopes the pay raise will “relieve some of the tension.”