MBA opposes challenge to CPCS budget

Issue November 2010 By Cassidy Murphy

Last month, in an escalation of a war of words that had been waged mostly behind the scenes, the state's 11 district attorneys held a press conference protesting the $72-million discrepancy between the budgets of the prosecutors and the state's public defenders, represented by the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS).

The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association (MDAA) declared in a press release that "the state's budget should reflect public safety priorities" and advocated for a solution that reallocates existing funds based on caseloads.

The district attorneys argued that in fiscal 2010, they handled approximately 300,000 cases on a total budget of $92 million, while CPCS handled approximately 200,000 cases and received $168 million in funding.

The comparison is "apples to oranges," according to Anthony J. Benedetti, chief counsel for CPCS. The DAs are being "disingenuous," he said, because the budget for prosecutors does not include many of the line items that are included in CPCS' budget.

"They don't take into consideration all of the different resources the prosecutors have at their disposal," he said, including the state's medical examiner, the state crime lab and resources provided in partnership with the Office of the Attorney General and the FBI.

CPCS' budget "includes many line items that do not appear in the prosecutors' budget, that are provided by other sources of funding," he said. "Interpreters, expert witnesses, things like that, we pay for out of our budget."

For example, nearly $1.4 billion was spent on local police forces last year. If 30 percent of a local police force's budget is allocated to the prosecution of cases, that's $420 million that the district attorneys have failed to acknowledge, Benedetti said.

The district attorneys also enjoy free municipal office space, receive far more in federal grants and benefit from the profits of drug forfeitures, he said.

Martin W. Healy, chief operating officer and chief legal counsel of the Massachusetts Bar Association, said the MBA is sympathetic to the district attorneys' plight, but that the solution is to increase their budget, not reduce CPCS'.

"The criticism of CPCS is misplaced," the MBA said in a statement. "The district attorneys should not attack defense counsel because of a lack of funding for prosecutors."

The MBA has a long-standing history of urging for more funding for both prosecutors and defense attorneys. A blue ribbon commission formed in 1994, the MBA's Callahan Commission, found that both prosecutors and defense attorneys are woefully underfunded.

Bar advocates are paid a low hourly wage that must account for all of their own expenses, while the district attorneys have separate line items to cover the costs of their offices, experts and other expenses, Healy said, a sentiment echoed by Benedetti.

"We pay a flat rate of $50 per hour to private attorneys," Benedetti said. "That does not include pensions, health insurance, the cost of malpractice insurance or any of the other ancillary benefits of being a state employee. The last time we had a major wage increase was in 2005 -- and the prosecutors voted in favor of it."

Benedetti said CPCS has reached out to the district attorneys "for years, trying to work together for higher salaries for both staffs, and we still want to work with them on that particular piece," but that the organization will "continue to get the message out to policy and lawmakers that the DAs are being disingenuous when they suggest this is an apples-to-apples comparison."

"We support an increase in the DA's budget, but not at the expense of providing representation to the indigent," he said.

The MDAA did not return calls seeking comment by press time.