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Criminal justice lawyers are becoming ‘working poor,’ study says

Massachusetts must immediately increase salaries paid to public defenders and prosecutors, some of whom qualify as the working poor, to assure that the rights of the innocent are protected and the guilty are justly imprisoned, a Massachusetts Bar Association study has found.

The report said that Massachusetts ranks dead last in annual salaries paid to public defenders through the Committee for Public Counsel Services and that county prosecutors often are the lowest-paid person in a courtroom, finishing behind custodial workers.

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The study was conducted by the MBA’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation, which included a current and former judge, bar association officials, defense attorneys, and former district attorneys.

“The unvarnished truth is the compensation is so poor that it drives these lawyers away from the criminal justice system or into the ranks of the working poor,’’ the MBA panel found. “Massachusetts prides itself as a national leader in most fields, including the law. But in compensation of criminal justice lawyers, it ranks dead last.’’

The special committee called for an immediate boost in the starting salaries for assistant district attorneys, public defenders, and assistant attorneys general to $55,000 a year. It also called for budgets for those agencies to be boosted by 20 percent to give current staff members a pay hike.

Currently, assistant district attorneys start at $37,500 and public defenders at $40,000. Starting pay for assistant attorneys general was not available.

Salaries must be tied to cost-of-living increases, something that lawyers for other government agencies frequently receive, but which has never been provided for criminal justice attorneys, the panel found.

“The citizens of Massachusetts who are the victims of crime deserve the most competent prosecutors, and the poor who are accused by the state of criminal behavior have a right to effective assistance of counsel,’’ the study said.

Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the bar association, said the panel also learned that many public defenders and prosecutors work second jobs.

“The vast majority of criminal justice attorneys are supplementing their income through second jobs, and many of those jobs are in the hospitality industry,” Healy said. “They are working as bartenders, as waiters, and waitresses. They are not living an extravagant lifestyle.’’

He said the issue is important to the public, not just the attorneys themselves.

“There is definitely a public safety aspect to all of it,’’ Healy said. “Some of the individuals are beating charges they ought not to be, and then get back out on the street.

“And the innocent person standing before the court can be hurt, as well. Tax dollars are not being spent in a wise and appropriate fashion.”

The panel also called for an overhaul of the rules for what is known as the Private Counsel Division in the state’s public defender agency. Massachusetts has a small number of public defenders, and, in addition, pays for private lawyers known as “bar advocates” to represent indigent clients.

“The responsibilities and accomplishments of our criminal justice attorneys deserve and demand better treatment,” the special committee concluded.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.
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