Lamenting equitable pay

Issue December/January 2008 By Ed W. McIntyre

It is a lamentable fact that Massachusetts assistant district attorneys are woefully underpaid and are among the lowest paid prosecutors in the nation. The low wages of ADAs pointed out in a Boston Herald Nov. 18 article, “Scales of Injustice,” are no surprise. The Massachusetts Bar Association has been advocating for equitable compensation of ADAs since 1993, when the MBA formed the Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation.

Pathetic ADA pay, however, is not the fault of private criminal defense lawyers who represent people who cannot afford a lawyer. Attorneys who defend these indigent clients do not do it for the money; they take on these cases at pay rates much lower than what they can earn from private clients. Private defense attorneys defending indigent clients also do not have anywhere near the wherewithal of the full district attorney’s office, state police, investigators, expert witnesses or state crime lab. It’s sensible that they would receive reasonable compensation; they are financially obligated to pay their own costs of doing business and an ever escalating overhead.

Whatever your opinion of private defense attorneys, they have no bearing on the pay rates of public sector attorneys. Prosecutors, who dedicate their careers to public service, should be rewarded for their hard work. ADAs are necessary, along with other branches of law enforcement, to protect public safety across the commonwealth.

More than half of the state’s ADAs earn between $35,000 and $44,999 a year, with most on the lower end of that range. Nationally, at least 14 states pay their ADAs a starting salary higher than $35,000 a year. Locally, ADAs in Maine are paid $39,000 a year to start and Rhode Island ADAs earn a starting salary of $45,000 a year.

Low wages for ADAs lead to high turnover and less experience in DA offices. No law firm could sustain this sort of turnover without compromising the quality of its work product, and neither can DA offices. Faded memories, gone-missing witnesses, overcrowded dockets, untried cases, delays for victims and unjustly delayed dispositions are only some of the compromises the public incurs because of high turnover rate.  All of these are symptoms of a compensation level so low that it is not a “living wage,” as that term is customarily defined.

Since publishing a report in 1994, the MBA has appealed to the Legislature to fund an increase in ADA pay. The MBA has repeatedly requested increasing ADA salaries by 20 percent, keeping levels of ADA compensation equal to that of other public sector attorneys and indexing salaries to cost-of-living increases.

A proposed statute currently before the Legislature would establish the first-ever pay scale for ADAs, including step increases based on years of experience as well as cost-of-living increases. The new system, similar to those in place for assistant United States attorneys, would start with a minimum annual salary of $45,000 for new ADAs. Those with 20 years of experience or more would earn $115,000.

Dedication to public service is a resource that must be nurtured and preserved, so that career prosecutors will be enabled to protect public safety in partnership with other branches of law enforcement. Fairly compensating the state’s ADAs is not only the right thing to do, it is an important step to ensure proper access to justice in Massachusetts.

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