Salaries of attorneys who work in the state's criminal justice
system are both "inadequate and inequitable," according to a May
2014 report from the Massachusetts Bar Association Blue Ribbon
Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation.
The report, "Doing Right by Those Who Labor for Justice: Fair
and Equitable Compensation for Attorneys Serving the Commonwealth
in its Criminal Courts," analyzes the "declining economic status"
of prosecutors, public defenders and bar advocates due to low
salaries. (The full report can be accessed online at:
www.massbar.org/blueribbonreport.) It is the first study conducted
on this topic since the MBA's groundbreaking "Callahan Report" in
Perhaps the most striking finding in the commission's report is
that the lowest paid person in a Massachusetts courtroom is a new
assistant district attorney ($37,500), whose salary ranks less than
the courtroom custodian ($38,796) and the switchboard operator
Massachusetts also ranks last in the nation in public defenders'
salaries ($32,786.89) when cost of living is factored in. Public
defenders are the third-lowest paid workers in a Massachusetts
courtroom, and the salaries of entry-level assistant district
attorneys and assistant attorneys general rank well below those in
"Assistant district attorneys, assistant attorneys general,
public defenders and bar advocates (lawyers appointed to defend
indigents) are grossly underpaid, earning far less than their
counterparts in comparative jurisdictions across the country," the
report notes. "Embarrassingly, other states put a higher premium on
the services of their criminal justice work force than does
The commission found that entry-level salaries for assistant
district attorneys in Massachusetts ($37,000) are far less than
those in New Hampshire ($52,000) and Connecticut ($60,000).
Salaries for entry-level assistant attorneys general in
Massachusetts ($55,000) rank less than those in Rhode Island
($56,000), New York ($60,000), New Jersey ($62,000), Connecticut
($73,000) and New Hampshire ($74,000).
The report also notes that a wide salary gap exists between
federal attorneys and state attorneys in Massachusetts, with
prosecutors' starting salaries significantly less than other state
agency attorneys. A Counsel I attorney receives a salary in the
range of $54,946 to $79,659, and a Counsel II attorney earns
between $62,978 and $80,000. In comparison, a state assistant
district attorney starts at $37,500.
In March, the commission convened a hearing at the John Adams
Courthouse in Boston, where it heard testimony from several
district attorneys, public defenders and bar advocates about the
impact of low salaries. Statements made at the hearing were
incorporated in the commission's report.
"The testimony taken from lawyers practicing on the criminal
side of our justice system was incredibly heart-rending and
powerful," said MBA Past President Richard P. Campbell, who chaired
the commission. "I started the proceedings believing that these
lawyers were underpaid, but the enormity of their hardships and
their resolute commitment to professionalism despite them was
emotive and awe inspiring."
In addition to Campbell, members of the commission included:
Denise Squillante, MBA past president; Hon. William D. Delahunt,
former congressman and district attorney for Norfolk County; Hon.
Suzanne V. DelVecchio (ret.), former Superior Court chief justice,
mediator, Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation, Inc.; Gerard T.
Leone, partner, Nixon Peabody and former district attorney,
Middlesex County; Hon. Charles Johnson, former chief justice,
Boston Municipal Court; Richard Lord, chief executive officer and
president, Associated Industries of Massachusetts; Randy Chapman of
Chelsea, MACDL past president (2007-2009); and Martin Kane, past
president of the Middlesex County Bar Association and former
Middlesex assistant district attorney. Martin W. Healy, MBA chief
legal counsel and chief operating officer, served as commission
The commission provided suggestions within the report on how to
improve the challenges assistant district attorneys, public
defenders and bar advocates face living in a state where
compensation rates have changed little in 20 years.
Some of the key recommendations include:
- Immediately raise starting salaries for assistant district
attorneys, assistant attorney generals and full-time public
defenders (attorneys in the Public Counsel Division of CPCS) to
$55,000, which must be fully funded with commensurate increases for
more experienced lawyers.
- Increase budget line items applicable to compensation of lawyers
employed by district attorneys offices, the Office of the Attorney
General, and CPCS to allow for a 20 percent increase in
- Take steps to keep the levels of compensation of full-time criminal
justice attorneys at least equal to that of other public sector
- Eliminate rules and practices of CPCS applicable to bar
advocates, which treat these lawyers differently than and more
inferior to full-time public defenders.
- Address bar advocate compensation to ensure: 1) compensation for
bar advocate programs are fair and reasonable and meet prevailing
standards in the relevant communities, 2) hourly rates for bar
advocates are structured such that serious felony cases in Superior
Court attract participants, and 3) hourly rates for bar are
reviewed whenever a substantial change in the cost of living is
experienced and on an regular biennial period.
Report garners media attention
The commission's report has already shined a light on this critical
issue by garnering strong media attention on both a national and
regional level after it was adopted by the MBA's House of Delegates
First appearing in print in the Boston Globe on May 9 ("Criminal
justice lawyers are becoming 'working poor,' study says"), the
issue of low criminal justice salaries has been covered in print
and on television, and by two leading national online law blogs:
The Wall Street Journal Law Blog and Above the Law.
On May 19, commission member and former Middlesex County
District Attorney Martin Kane appeared on "Broadside" on New
England Cable News, along with current Middlesex County District
Attorney Marian Ryan, where they discussed ADA/defender salaries
and the commission's report with host Jim Braude.
Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham examined low ADA/public
defender salaries in her May 22 column, "A salary that's hard to
defend." Abraham wrote: "When we shortchange them, we shortchange
the entire justice system. And our vaunted progressive ideals are
exposed as hollow."
Other outlets that covered the report included the Lowell Sun,
ABA Journal and the MetroWest Daily News.
"I hope that the report reaches the commonwealth's legislative
decision-makers both physically, meaning that they receive it and
actually read it, and spiritually, meaning that they are moved to
do something about this travesty," said Campbell, the commission
chair. "I also hope that the people and institutions who drive
public opinion in our state will seize on this report, adopt its
conclusions and push the commonwealth to act. There is really only
one fair resolution of the current problem - ending the status