Massachusetts State House.
Policy Library

Justice System Salaries: Public Defenders and State Prosecutors

February 20, 2014

When we talk about funding our justice system, we include our state courts, prosecutors, public defenders, and also civil legal aid attorneys.  On Tuesday, February 11th, the Joint House and Senate Committees on Ways & Means held a budget hearing. Representatives from every piece of the justice system were on hand to testify.

The CPCS budget request for Fiscal Year 2015 is a maintenance request of $206.6 million, plus an additional $12 million to fund a pay increase for both CPCS staff attorneys and private bar advocates.  The CPCS budget request would increase the starting salary for staff attorneys from $40,000 to $50,000 and would also effectuate an hourly rate increase for bar advocates.  Here’s the breakdown: a $5/hour increase for murder cases, superior court cases — including sexually dangerous persons cases — and care and protection/termination of parental rights cases.  The hourly rate for all other cases would be increased by $2/hour.

CPCS does not look like it did in 2011 when the Legislature mandated that 25% of all indigent assigned cases be handled by staff attorneys.  It has grown significantly and staff attorneys are handling close to that 25% caseload target.  In 2011, there were 282 staff attorneys; today there are 482.

It’s no secret that public defenders working for CPCS and our assistant district attorneys are paid woefully low salaries.  A public defender’s salary starts at $40,000 and an assistant district attorney’s salary starts even lower at $37,500.  This compensation ranks Massachusetts 41st nationally for entry level salaries for public defenders.  When adjusted by the cost-of-living index, Massachusetts is dead last.

An attorney doesn’t accept a position with CPCS or a District Attorney’s office because it pays well.  Both of these jobs require sacrifice and commitment to an ideal. Public defenders have made a commitment to uphold the constitutional right to counsel ensured by our federal and state constitutions.  Assistant District Attorneys have made a commitment to serving the interests of the Commonwealth by prosecuting alleged criminal behavior.

But the low starting pay is only part of the problem.  The ability to retain experienced prosecutors and public defenders has become a challenge.    Significant time and resources are spent training lawyers who then leave for jobs paying much more.

These facts beg the question: what impact do these low salaries have on attrition? How do they affect the overall system’s ability to deliver justice efficiently and effectively?  We are pleased that CPCS has decided it’s time to revisit raising salaries.  Both our public defenders and our state prosecutors deserve adequate compensation.

– Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association