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Unimpressive Salaries Lead to High Turnover in Public Defender’s Office
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Increasing attorney salaries may keep more attorneys in the public defender's and district attorney's offices in Massachusetts.

Summary: Due to their low salaries, many attorneys leave government jobs after a short while, leading to increased training expenses for these offices.

According to the Boston Globe, the low salaries offered to attorneys in government offices lead to high rates of turnover in these departments.


The Massachusetts Bar Association discovered that Massachusetts public defenders are paid the lowest salaries of all the fifty states after adjusting for cost of living. The $40,000 salaries are much less than what court reporters and probation officers pull in—those positions earn $77,496 per year and $66,238 per year, respectively.

In addition, freshly hired assistant district attorneys make $37,500 per year, which is lower than the salaries of courthouse custodians, who make $38,796 each year.

In 2013, the Miami-Dade public defender’s office allowed attorneys to withdraw from felony cases due to their heavy workloads.

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Because of the low salaries, many attorneys in these positions leave after just a few years on the job, which means new attorneys must be trained quite often, leading to major costs in government offices.

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In late December, a gubernatorial commission issued a compensation study that recommended increasing the minimum salary for public defenders and assistant district attorneys to $55,360. In addition, the commission recommends phasing in this increase by no later than three years from now.

In 2008, an Ohio prosecutor was livid that work was outsourced to private attorneys.

The study reads, “It’s beyond dispute that [this] work is important, there is a lot of it, and it requires competent, experienced criminal justice attorneys. Unfortunately, the salaries of prosecutors and public defenders have persistently failed to reflect these realities.” In addition, CNN reports that some attorneys have committed suicide after suffering decreased salaries or layoffs after the economic crisis.

The pay issue is a longstanding one for the state court systems, whose attorneys quickly burn out from major law school debt and high caseloads. Several stories have surfaced of public defenders and assistant district attorneys depending on their families for financial support.

Jack Cinquegrana, an attorney at Choate Hall & Stewart who serves on the commission and also chairs Massachusetts’ public defender agency, the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said, “It’s been going on forever. These are people doing substantial public service work and being extraordinarily underpaid for it.”

Law school debt is hard to pay off with low starting salaries.

In 2011, government attorneys were further burdened by a legislative mandate that required the agency to increase its in-house cases by 25 percent of its total caseload. The agency hires private attorneys and pays them hourly to handle most of the 275,000 cases. Governor Deval Patrick argued that in theory, handling more cases in-house with salaried attorneys would be a most cost efficient way of working.

However, Cinquegrana said that the reality was that the move “…resulted in CPCS having to hire more lawyers, and we have this waterfall where young lawyers come in, get trained, and they then leave us. So we can never staff up sufficiently to handle the caseload we’re asked to handle.”

Cinquegrana explained that if salaries were increased, the retention rate likely would increase as well, growing the number of experienced attorneys on staff. He said, “We’re not spending our money wisely by underpaying our lawyers, who we expect to carry significant caseloads, only to lose them and have to start over. As soon as we get people with sufficient experience, we lose them. It’s not an efficient way to use our money.”

The study clearly implies a sense of urgency with the issue, saying that it “requires immediate attention.” Commission members are hopeful that their study will be a factor in state budget discussions, although a $750 million budget deficit waits for the new governor, Charlie Baker.

The agency’s chief counsel, Anthony Benedetti, said, “Without a doubt, we’re mindful of the fiscal reality. But even in good times, policy makers have the challenging task of making decisions on how to spend limited tax dollars. So we’re hopeful that with this report, on top of the MBA report, there will be some positive movement on this critical issue.”

Tim Buckley, a spokesman for Baker, said, “This issue is obviously important to the [governor] and he looks forward to learning more.”

Source: Boston Globe

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