Are Prosecutors and Public Defenders Paid Enough?

After a back-and-forth with the Legislature during the Fiscal Year 2015 budget debate, Governor Deval Patrick issued an executive order to create a new commission that will study the question of appropriate salaries for prosecutors and public defenders. 

Earlier this year, the Legislature sent the Governor a budget that increased District Attorney (DA) salaries by 15%, from $148,843 to $171,561.  The Chief Counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), whose pay is statutorily tied to that of the DA’s, would get the same raise.  The budget did not change salaries for Assistant DAs (ADAs), though it included a statewide pool of $500,000 to be used, largely at the DAs’ discretion, toward raises intended to help retain ADAs with more than 3 years of experience – a group that numbers in the hundreds.

Governor Patrick expressed his support for this $22,718 pay increase for DAs – their first in 7 years – but returned the provision with a proposed amendment that would also create a commission to study the salaries of ADAs and CPCS staff attorneys.  The Governor wrote, “These dedicated public servants deserve a salary reflective of their indispensable contribution to the Commonwealth and the fair and equitable dispensation of justice in our courts.”

The Legislature rejected this amendment, overriding the Governor and enacting the pay raise with no commission.  But the Governor created one anyway through an executive order and tasked it with comparing salary structures within DA offices and CPCS to those in other states, as well as to salaries of attorneys in law firms and other government offices.   In addition, the commission will look into the possibility of cost-of-living increases and try to put a figure on how much money the state will need “to address inadequate salaries”.

The “pathetic” pay for new ADAs was the subject of an editorial in the Boston Globe earlier this year, and salaries for incoming CPCS defenders are only marginally higher.  The Globe pointed out that most law-school graduates in Massachusetts must weigh heavy student debt and the high cost of housing in making job decisions, and that low salaries lead to unnecessary turnover.  The Commission will undoubtedly find – as the Massachusetts Bar Association’s task force on this subject recently did – that pay scales for these critical jobs are well below those in surrounding states. 

The Governor’s commission must report its findings and recommendations by December 15, 2014, and we will continue to monitor its progress until then.  The BBA has long supported efforts to advance the cause of justice, and attracting and retaining skilled prosecutors and defenders can be an important part of that equation – so long as the funds don’t come at the expense of other essential components of the justice system.  Incoming BBA Vice President Carol Starkey will represent the BBA on the 15-member commission, and we look forward to reviewing its report.

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Finally, a personal note: This is my first Issue Spot entry, having started last week as the BBA’s Government Relations Director.  I look forward to using this space to keep you updated on matters of interest to the BBA, and I hope to have the opportunity to work with as many of you as possible.  Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you have any questions or concerns.

- Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

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