Richland County Council has approved a pay raise for attorneys at the Richland County Public Defender’s Office, one that will put them on level ground with prosecutors at the Fifth Circuit Solicitor’s Office.
Council recently approved its two-year budget, and within that spending plan was an additional $517,000 for salary increases in the public defender's office. With the move, starting salaries for public defenders will go from $39,231 to $52,483. That salary will match the starting pay for assistant solicitors.
Council Vice Chairwoman Dalhi Myers, an attorney who represents Lower Richland’s District 10, spearheaded the push to get more pay for public defenders, who typically represent indigent clients who can’t afford to pay a private lawyer.
Myers says increasing public defender pay has been on her radar for quite some time.
“Public defenders have historically been paid less than the solicitor’s office,” Myers tells Free Times. “So, you’d have law students come out of USC, one going to the solicitor’s office, one going to the public defender’s office. Both have the same degree, and one is getting paid much less. That sends a message to the public.
"It also affects the quality of people you can recruit and retain. If you can’t retain people who have learned how to do a really good job at what they do, and you are always training new people who are fresh out of the box, and those people are going against very seasoned litigators, then the not-so-well-heeled defendants stand to be in an unfortunate position.”
In imploring Council to pump extra money into the public defender’s office coffers, Myers noted the dire circumstances faced by those accused of crimes, noting their very freedom is at stake.
“This has to do with whether or not we take a person off the street and deprive them of their liberty, and making sure that the people ... who can’t get their own lawyer have adequate counsel to defend them,” she told her colleagues.
Councilwoman Yvonne McBride also put a strong push behind the measure.
“This is probably one of the most important decisions we are going to make,” McBride said. “This not only impacts the persons who have … been accused of committing a crime, but it impacts the economy of Richland County and the lives of families.”
Fielding Pringle, the lead public defender for the Fifth Circuit, was pleased with Council’s decision to put public defenders on level salary ground with prosecutors.
“I’m thrilled,” Pringle tells Free Times. “It is one of the most progressive things that has happened, certainly, in my career. Councilwoman Myers and Councilwoman [Joyce] Dickerson and all of the others who supported it, they are just heroes, with what they did. … What they did is they created parity between the solicitor’s office and the Richland County Public Defender’s Office attorneys, so the attorneys’ salaries are equal. That has never been the case.
"That’s certainly where things should be.”
The new salaries will go into effect at the public defender’s office on July 1, according to county officials.
Pringle insists the increased salaries will help her with attorney retention. Myers says that is one of the chief reasons she pushed for the funding.
“[Pringle] told me that, the day she told [attorneys in the public defender’s office] that they were going to be on par with the solicitor’s office, a young lawyer came in her office and said she had decided [before the pay bump] that she was either going to leave or take a second job at night, because her student loans were overwhelming and she couldn’t buy a house or anything at the [previous] salary,” Myers says. “It made her decide to stay. I was very pleased with that.”