Paying for Justice: Public Defenders and Prosecutors Fight for Better Salaries
Updated: Oct 19
Earlier this year, Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez and State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle urged Florida lawmakers to financially aid public defenders and prosecutors, alleging that the pay has “reached a crisis level.” The pay public defenders and prosecutors receive insufficient to cover the high costs of living. As a result, the offices that employ them are grappling with high turnover rates.
The turnover signifies that public defenders and prosecutors are staying in the jobs for a few years. In Florida, prosecutors and public defenders are leaving government service at an alarming rate. Over the past year, the prosecutor and defender officers in Miami-Dade County, each has lost nearly a quarter of its lawyers. This issue is not exclusive to Florida. In a California public defender’s office, young dedicated and talented attorneys remain in their office as little as six months in their positions before the realities of the low salary combined with the overwhelming workload set in.
The high rotation of lawyers means that younger, inexperienced attorneys are handling more severe and complex cases before they are ready. Gainesville State Attorney, Bill Cervone, admits to feeling uncomfortable with sending inexperienced lawyers to handle violent sexual assault and batteries yet having no choice as the more experienced lawyers are needed for homicide cases.
The reality is that government-paid criminal attorneys all over the country are grossly underpaid. An unbelievable study conducted by the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation found that an entry level district attorney in a Massachusetts courtroom gets paid less than the custodian.
The average entry-level salary for a prosecuting attorney is $51,100, for public defenders it is $50,400 compared with private defense lawyers whose starting salaries average $118, 660. Despite having the same educational preparation as private attorneys, public defenders and prosecutors are struggling to afford the costs of housing, student debt, and other things like childcare. It seems preposterous that after years of college and law school and after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on education, attorneys cannot afford necessary expenses.
Unfortunately, there is also a significant pay disparity between the attorneys on opposite sides of the courtroom. In various parts of the country, public defense attorneys make considerably less than their prosecutor counterparts. Take Multnomah County in Oregon, for example, where the highest-paid staff attorney in the public defender's office makes just $2,888 more than the lowest-paid prosecutor.
This issue has had a serious effect on the criminal justice system as a whole. The pay disparity puts public defender and prosecutor careers out of reach for students who do not come from wealthy families. Students who go to law school with hopes of bringing justice to their underserved find themselves at a crossroad: either pursuing the career they want or being able to live comfortably. With the cost of living and student loan debt on the rise, it will become less feasible for law school graduates to pursue a career in this area of public interest.
Several states have attempted to remedy this issue through legislation; however, most bills have not been able to pass. Legislation has not come to fruition partly because of budget concerns. In Oregon, it would cost the state twenty-five million dollars or more per biennium merely to bring public defenders to pay up to the level of prosecutors, let alone raise government pay altogether. Further, The Florida Senate proposed a bill that would give $2,000 salary raises to prosecutors and public defenders with three years’ experience or less and $4,000 increases to those with more experience. Unfortunately, the bill failed in the Florida House of Representatives.
The overwhelming workload and lack of fair compensation are having a significant effect on our criminal justice system. Government-paid attorneys increasingly have to leave their jobs merely to be able to afford the steep costs of living. Public defenders and prosecutors advocate for some of the most vulnerable groups in our country; most come into their careers with dedication and passion. As such, it is imperative that legislatures nationwide consider raising the pay for public defenders and prosecutors.