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How paltry are the paychecks of public defenders and assistant district attorneys in Massachusetts?

The Massachusetts Bar Association found that public defenders in this state are paid the lowest salaries in the country, when their $40,000 salaries are adjusted for the cost of living, putting Massachusetts just below West Virginia. The same review showed that newly hired assistant district attorneys, who make $37,500 a year, are paid even less than courthouse custodians.

It also found that, because of the low salaries, large numbers of these lawyers leave their jobs after just a few years, which creates an expensive cycle of continually having to train new hires.

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Armed with that data, a gubernatorial commission in late December released a compensation study that recommends increasing the minimum annual salary for assistant district attorneys and public defenders to $55,360.

It also advises that the increase be phased in over no more than three years.

“It’s beyond dispute that [this] work is important, there is a lot of it, and it requires competent, experienced criminal justice attorneys,” the study says. “Unfortunately, the salaries of prosecutors and public defenders have persistently failed to reflect these realities.”

“We’re not spending our money wisely by underpaying our lawyers. ... As soon as we get people with sufficient experience, we lose them,” said Jack Cinquegrana, a lawyer at Choate Hall & Stewart who chairs the state’s public defender agency.
“We’re not spending our money wisely by underpaying our lawyers. ... As soon as we get people with sufficient experience, we lose them,” said Jack Cinquegrana, a lawyer at Choate Hall & Stewart who chairs the state’s public defender agency.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The pay problem is a perennial one for the state’s court system, exacerbated by high law school debt and heavy caseloads, which can quickly lead to burnout. Anecdotal stories abound of public defenders and assistant district attorneys who require routine financial support from family members to pay for basic expenses.

“It’s been going on forever,” said Jack Cinquegrana, a lawyer at Choate Hall & Stewart who serves on the commission and chairs the state’s public defender agency, the Committee for Public Counsel Services. “These are people doing substantial public service work and being extraordinarily underpaid for it.”

The situation has been worsened by a 2011 legislative mandate that the agency increase the number of cases it handles in-house to 25 percent of its total caseload. The agency hires private lawyers at hourly rates to handle the majority of its roughly 275,000 annual cases. In theory, former Governor Deval Patrick argued, handling more work in-house with salaried staff attorneys would be more cost-efficient.

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But “that’s resulted in CPCS having to hire more lawyers, and we have this waterfall where young lawyers come in, get trained, and then they leave us,” typically in one to three years, Cinquegrana said. “So we can never staff up sufficiently to handle the caseload we’re asked to handle.” Raising salaries would increase retention rates and, in turn, increase the number of experienced lawyers, the commission argues.

Added Cinquegrana: “We’re not spending our money wisely by underpaying our lawyers, who we expect to carry significant caseloads, only to lose them and have to start over. As soon as we get people with sufficient experience, we lose them. It’s not an efficient way to use our money.”

The study says the issue “requires immediate attention,” and commission members hope their findings will be a factor in state budget conversations, despite the estimated $750 million budget deficit facing the new governor, Charlie Baker.

“Without a doubt, we’re mindful of the fiscal reality,” said the agency’s chief counsel, Anthony Benedetti. “But even in good times, policy makers have the challenging task of making decisions on how to spend limited tax dollars. So we’re hopeful that with this report, on top of the MBA report, there will be some positive movement on this critical issue.”

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A spokesman for Baker, Tim Buckley, said: “This issue is obviously important to the [governor] and he looks forward to learning more.”

Related coverage:

Budget boosts pay for sheriffs, district attorneys

Yvonne Abraham: A salary that’s hard to defend

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


Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SachaPfeiffer.