Trial judges, sheriffs, and district attorneys are due for a significant bump in pay under the recent budget approved by state legislators. Not so the roughly 700 assistant district attorneys who work in the trenches prosecuting about 300,000 cases each year, including heinous felonies and serious misdemeanors.
There is nothing outrageous, per se, about a 15 percent pay increase for the state’s 11 district attorneys, who haven’t received a raise since 2007. Their annual salaries would jump to $171,000 from the current $149,000. But in the process of remunerating the top dogs in the state criminal justice system, lawmakers have inadvertently put a spotlight on the pathetic salaries of the assistant district attorneys.
Salaries for assistant district attorneys in Massachusetts start at $37,500. Pay rises with responsibility, but only in the weakest sense. An ADA with two to five years of experience, for example, could expect to graduate to jury trials in district court, Superior Court cases, and work on major crime task forces. Even then, their salaries would remain in the low- to mid-$40,000 range. The $700 raise for an ADA in this year’s budget might better be described as an insult than an increase.
Such salaries are not sufficient to pay off student debt, buy a home, or even live independently. A recent report by the Massachusetts Bar Association condemned the salary structure, arguing that ADAs “cannot meet the financial obligations attendant to everyday, normal life.” (Full-time public defenders face similar constraints.)
It’s true that ADAs quickly gain levels of experience that can open doors at private law firms. But that revolving door does nothing to ensure that victims of crime in Massachusetts receive the benefit of knowing that an experienced and competent prosecutor is on their side. Greater stability depends on higher salaries.
A $10,000 salary boost would be a game changer for a newly minted ADA. But the recent decision to raise the salaries of the state’s 380 Trial Court judges from $130,000 to $160,000 is not likely to have nearly as dramatic an effect on individual lives. As he scrutinizes a budget that gives raises to more top earners, Governor Patrick should give serious thought to those who are working and languishing at the bottom of the criminal justice system.