Following Up on the CPCS-ADA Salary Study Commission

We’ve written in this space at least twice before about the issue of underpaid assistant district attorneys (ADA’s) and staff attorneys at the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS).  We turn to it again this week, both because it is a pressing issue of fairness and public safety, as well as a priority for the BBA, but also because there are new developments.

The Commission to Study Compensation of Assistant District Attorneys and Staff Attorneys for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, established by former Governor Deval Patrick in July, released its report and recommendations shortly before the end of the Governor’s term.  The key takeaway: The minimum salary for both ADA’s and CPCS attorneys should be tied to that of the starting salary for attorneys in the Commonwealth’s executive-branch (Counsel I) – which stood at $55,360 at the time of the report but rose to $56,594 at the start of 2015.

The report spells out, just how low ADA and CPCS salaries are in comparison to their counterparts in other states.  In neighboring states, as the report says, “The findings were stark — Massachusetts is the lowest, despite a cost of living that is markedly higher.”

Last year, an MBA report made similar findings and drew support from Yvonne Abraham of the Boston Globe and the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly editorial board.  The MBA emphasized that the low salaries for these public service lawyers, combined with the enormous burden of education debt, causes damaging turnover among fledgling attorneys in DA and CPCS offices and discourages others from even pursuing these jobs.

The Commission – which brought together CPCS and the District Attorneys, the House and the Senate, the MBA and the BBA, among others, and was chaired by the Secretaries of Public Safety and Administration and Finance – brings renewed attention to the issue and demonstrates the universal opinion of all stakeholders that a raise is not only justified, but long overdue.

As BBA Vice-President Carol Starkey, who was our representative on the Commission, put it:

ADAs and CPCS attorneys play a critical role in dispensing justice, and this report shows what the criminal-justice community has known all along – that these public lawyers, charged with protecting public safety and bringing constitutional guarantees of individual rights and procedural fairness to bear in our system, are woefully underpaid by every measure: whether that be in comparison to other government attorneys, in comparison to their colleagues in other states, or in relation to their training and expertise.  It’s long past time to address this general unfairness through a meaningful salary increase that would make these essential jobs, the very keystone of our criminal justice system, competitive to meet the cost-of-living needs of these committed lawyers.

After its release, the report was the subject of news items in the Boston Globe and Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

The MBA and Commission reports provide some much-needed momentum behind the push for raises in the 2015-16 legislative session.  However, the timing turns out to be far from ideal, with the state facing a fiscal crisis of a scale yet to be determined.  Estimates vary widely as to the size of the hole that has opened up in the state budget halfway through the 2015 fiscal year, and new Governor Charlie Baker and his team are looking into whether cuts may be necessary now, and how this situation may affect his FY2016 budget (due out in the next several weeks).

The bottom line for salary increases is that we will have to work even harder than expected to achieve our goal, in the face of these fiscal headwinds.  This will nevertheless continue to be a BBA priority, and we will keep you updated on developments.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association