Criminal justice compensation hearing highlights negative impact of low ADA, defender salaries

Thursday, Mar. 27, 2014
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Top: CPCS Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti testifies in front of a packed hearing room Second from top: District attorneys testify before the panel Second from bottom: Victoria Ranieri testifies on a panel of public defenders Bottom: Liza Lunt from MACDL Photos by Jason Scally

The Massachusetts Bar Association's Blue Ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation heard from more than 30 criminal law practitioners and public officials during a three-hour public hearing on Wednesday, March 26, at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and two court chiefs testified about how low salaries have negatively impacted attorney retention, public safety and access to justice. Testimony from the hearing will factor in to the Commission's recommendations, which will be released in its forthcoming report -- the first in 20 years to address the issue of criminal justice compensation.

Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, one of five district attorneys at the hearing, testified about how low salaries have depleted prosecutors' offices of veteran attorneys, many of whom leave for better paying jobs in the private and public sectors, once they get experienced. "In my 12 years [as Suffolk DA], I have hired and lost over 200 prosecutors," said Conley. He lamented the recruitment, hiring and training resources that are wasted due to high turnover. "This is not just financially wasteful, but clearly detrimental to the best interests of justice," he said.

Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, who appeared on the first panel along with fellow district attorneys Conley, Timothy J. Cruz (Plymouth County) and Michael O'Keefe (Cape and Islands), said that "there are days we have more judges sitting in Essex County than ADAs." Blodgett recommended district attorneys be given more discretionary funding so they can reward and retain top performers. Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan was also in attendance.

Following the district attorneys' testimony, Superior Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey and District Court Chief Justice Paul C. Dawley shared their concerns about the continued quality of cases being tried if prosecutors and public defenders could not retain experienced attorneys due to low salaries. Dawley said, "The current compensation level is without a doubt inadequate."

A majority of the voices heard at the hearing came from defense attorneys, including representatives from the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL) and the Massachusetts Association of Court Appointed Attorneys (MACAA), among others. CPCS Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti noted that Massachusetts public defender salaries are not only among the lowest in the county, but also among the lowest in the commonwealth for public sector attorneys. For example, Benedetti pointed to the "glaring" inequity between the CPCS starting attorney salary ($40,000) and the Counsel I salary ($54,900) paid to entry level attorneys in the executive branch.

Panels of public defenders and bar advocates also testified about their individual experiences, several of whom detailed their personal struggles to make financial ends meet while working a job they loved. Some shared stories about how they have been forced to live in less than ideal situations with roommates or relatives, taken on additional jobs or defaulted on their student loans. At least two public defenders mentioned that they recently resigned to take higher paying jobs in the private sector. It highlighted a theme throughout the hearing - low salaries are leading to attorney attrition among public defender ranks, which is leading to less experienced lawyers handling Superior Court cases.

For bar advocates, David Hoose of Hampden County Lawyers for Justice questioned why the rates for private lawyers who represent indigent defendants in criminal cases have not gone up in a decade. "Who else goes 10 years without a cost of living adjustment," Hoose asked. While there are many inequities to be fixed, Hoose said an increase in the rate for Superior Court cases is the most critical need, since the low and stagnant fee structure has removed incentive to take on more difficult cases.

In addition to the hearing testimony, the Commission also received written testimony from numerous practitioners.

The Commission was appointed by MBA President Douglas K. Sheff and is chaired by MBA Past President Richard P. Campbell. Members include: Denise Squillante, MBA Past President; Randy Chapman, Chapman & Chapman PC; William D. Delahunt, former Congressman and District Attorney for Norfolk County; Hon. Suzanne V. DelVecchio (ret.) former Chief Justice Superior Court, mediator, Commonwealth Mediation; Hon. Charles Johnson, former Chief Justice, Boston Municipal Court; Martin Kane II, McGrath & Kane; Gerard T. Leone, partner, Nixon Peabody LLP and former District Attorney, Middlesex County; Richard Lord, Chief Executive Officer and President, Associated Industries of Massachusetts; and Martin W. Healy, MBA Chief Legal Counsel and Chief Operating Officer, who serves as commission counsel.