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YVONNE ABRAHAM

A salary that’s hard to defend

Today in Obscene Salary Land, we’re going to leave behind the corporate chieftains lavished with gazillions in income, benefits, and stock options, even as their companies crater.

For a change of scenery, let’s head to the Commonwealth’s courthouses, and spend some time at the other, equally outrageous, end of the professional wage divide. Meet Victoria Ranieri, a public defender who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, has a law degree from Boston University, is fluent in four languages, and spends something close to 24 hours a day representing people who can’t afford private attorneys.

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With her resume, Ranieri, 31, could have done anything. But she chooses to stand beside defendants in District and Superior Court in Lawrence, because she’s quite partial to their constitutional right to representation. Every day in court, she’s joined by an equally committed, equally overworked assistant district attorney, who believes just as strongly in the rights of victims.

There is no justice system without these attorneys. The fates of vulnerable people are in their hands. If they’re not on their game, innocent people could be wrongly convicted and guilty people could go free. “Someone could lose everything that is meaningful about their life,” Ranieri says.

And yet, every day, Massachusetts tells these attorneys their hard work and dedication are practically worthless. Entry level assistant district attorneys are the lowest-paid people in the courtroom — their $37,500 annual salary falls below those of court reporters, clerks, switchboard operators, and custodians. Newish public defenders do slightly better, at $40,000. Crushed by six-figure student loans, many of them live with their parents and consume copious amounts of instant noodles. They take second jobs in bars and restaurants. Buying homes and having children feel like fantasies.

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Here, as in so many matters of criminal justice, supposedly enlightened Massachusetts ranks super low in some respects, and dead last in others. A recent report released by a Massachusetts Bar Association Blue Ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice Compensation paints a dismal picture, describing the attorneys as “being driven into the ranks of the working poor.” State prosecutors here start out earning $15,000 less than their counterparts in New Hampshire and $23,000 less than those in Connecticut. Public defenders here are ranked dead last in the nation when their already pathetic starting salaries are adjusted for the cost of living.

In the corporate world, those same attorneys could earn four times as much. Even elsewhere in state government, new attorneys make $55,000 to $80,000. When you start that far behind, it’s impossible to catch up. As the years drag on, the ideals to which these attorneys cling when they’re starting out fall casualty to fiscal realities. District attorneys’ and public defenders’ offices become revolving doors.

“Just when they get really good, they can’t afford to stay with us,” says Essex DA Jonathan Blodgett.

One prosecutor in Blodgett’s office, too embarrassed by her circumstances to be named, graduated from Suffolk Law in 2010, is making $42,000 a year, and will likely stay at that level for years. Because the 32-year-old is carrying about $215,000 in student debt, she lives with her parents. As hard as she works, she loves her job. But she doesn’t know how long she can afford to do it.

“I would love to stay in this job,” she says. “But it’s a tough thing to swallow, knowing we are the lowest-paid professionals in the courtroom.”

Ranieri, the defender in Lawrence, is trying to hold out as long as she can. Her law school debt currently stands at $160,000 (by the way, would someone please prosecute whoever is responsible for the student debt debacle in this country?). Her take-home salary is $1,355 every two weeks. Her student loan repayments are $1,096 a month. She has no choice but to live with her parents and grandparents, and she tries to help them out with food and other expenses. She has very little left over for, say, lunches.

“There’s a divide in my office between ramen noodle eaters and peanut-butter-and-jelly eaters,” she says.

But even scrimping on food isn’t enough some weeks. One time, Ranieri was headed to work and got stuck at a gas station when she realized — too late — that she didn’t have enough money in her bank account to cover her fuel. She had to go home and ask her father for $10, and she was late for court. She is never late for court.

“I was as close to despair that day as I have ever been in this job,” she says. “My financial situation affected everybody down the line, wasting the court’s time and my client’s time. He was not getting his lawyer at her best, which is what he deserved.”

She loves her work, which is just as well, because she does it almost every waking hour. “I’m happier on my worst day as a public defender than I would be on my best day in any other job,” she says. She wants to do it her whole life, she says, but not if that makes buying a home, having a child, or saving for retirement impossible.

None of this is new.

District attorneys and others have been baying about their employees’ abysmal salaries for decades now. Nobody on Beacon Hill seems to have listened. Judges and police officers have gotten recent bumps in salaries, but nobody seems to be paying attention when it comes to the lawyers who are just as vital a part of the justice system. Not governors. Not those who lead the courts, who should have demanded more long ago. Not legislators, many of them defense attorneys.

It’s not like these men and women get into public service to get rich. But geez, is it too much to ask that they be paid halfway fairly? When we shortchange them, we shortchange the entire justice system. And our vaunted progressive ideals are exposed as hollow.

“This seems so dissonant with the promises of Massachusetts,” Ranieri says.

It sure does. But do we have the good sense, the decency, to fix it?

Discuss: Share your thoughts

Related:

5/8:Study says criminal defense lawyers are becoming ‘working poor’

Boston Capital | 4/29: CEO’s pay puts spotlight back on executive compensation

3/13: Wall St. bonuses rise 15%, profits fall

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.
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