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Monday, July 02, 2007

Brain drain of prosecutors in Cook County

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

From any reasonable point of view, there should be some balance between how much the public pays to prosecute criminals and free the indigent innocent.

That's not the case in Cook County, where assistant state's attorneys are paid less than public defenders. It's not because public defenders are paid too much; they earn every penny they make for the important job of representing defendants who cannot afford counsel. Rather it's because when compared with prosecutors in the nation's other large counties, assistant state's attorneys here are underpaid and overworked.

Cook County assistant state's attorneys have disproportionately heavier caseloads than in other large counties. Here they close more cases and have more statutory duties.

The disparities are causing more assistant state's attorneys, including some "first chairs" or lead prosecutors, to leave for better paying jobs, while making the recruitment of new prosecutors more difficult, Cook County State's Atty. Richard Devine said in an interview. "The balance in the criminal justice system is vital. When you tilt it and higher pay goes for defense than for prosecution, then we've got problems. We're seeing an accelerated rate of resignations; it isn't dramatic yet, but I anticipate that we'll see a brain drain."

How it got this way is clouded in the arcane politics of the Cook County Board, where political preservation and advancement seem to trump the public interest at nearly every turn.

*When the board passed the budget in February, the state's attorney's office lost 100 people (out of a staff of about 800), including 44 prosecutors and 10 investigators. With about 540 lawyers, the public defender's office is smaller, but it lost proportionately fewer lawyers than the state's attorney's office.

*The typical prosecutor's annual pay before then was about $63,000, compared with $73,000 for public defenders. Since then, prosecutors received a raise that would bring them closer to "parity" with the public defenders, but they still lag about 8 percent behind. This while the total number of active felony cases per attorney is 50 in the public defender's office and 109 in the state's attorney's office.

*In Cook County, the prosecutor's office costs each citizen $23.07, which is in the low-end among big-county annual costs and compares with Manhattan's $48.97 and San Diego County's $43.62. The average caseload each prosecutor carries in Cook County is 600.17, among the nation's highest, which compares with San Diego's 88.32. The average number of filings per prosecutor here is 533, also among the highest, compared with San Diego's 150. The average number of cases closed per prosecutor here is 434 misdemeanor cases and 73 felony cases, also among the nation's highest, compared with San Diego's 32 misdemeanors and 46 felonies.

With the defections, declining staff, large workload and static salary, morale in the office is "horrible," said state's attorney spokesman John Gorman. But morale could improve if the County Board, at one of its two July meetings, approves a cost-of-living increase that would help catch them up. The $8.7 million needed, Gorman said, could come from the county's "814 account," which is money set aside for raises for county employees. Apparently how much is in the account is somewhat foggy, as Gorman said, "we've heard figures from $37 million to $16 million." There may be enough votes to pass the raise, but a veto by County Board President Todd Stroger would require a four-fifths vote of commissioners to override, a virtual impossibility. The county's budget is heavy with red ink and opponents of a raise for prosecutors easily could depict achieving parity between assistant state's attorneys and public defenders as just another special interest pleading. Indeed, striking a balance between all the needs competing for county money is a challenge for even the most dedicated County Board and skillful County Board president, let alone for Stroger.

Yet, Devine sees salary parity as a high priority compared with other needs because an effective criminal justice system requires balance between resources for the prosecution and the defense. "Prosecutors can vote with their feet," he said, "and unless the County Board acts, we will have a loss of talent that will seriously impact the prosecution of criminals in this county."

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Byrne,
Your piece on Cook County Asst. State's Attorneys was honest & informative. There are other factors that make this issue even more galling.

The lack of pay parity between prosecutors and public defenders in Cook County is perhaps the best example of how frustrating it can be not only to accomplish justice in Chicago, but also to feel that our efforts are even appreciated.

I have been an Asst. State's Attorney for nearly nine years.

I read with interest your article about Cook County Assistant State's Attorneys' comparably low salaries. I will just offer some additional information that you & your readers may find interesting.

You may find it extremely informative to look at Commissioner Tony Peraica's website: www.joinperaica.com. Within the website, you will find a link to the entire Cook County payroll. You can search by name, department and title. The information regarding names, salaries and hire dates are highly accurate and are regularly updated. Even a cursory review of the salaries and hire dates of Asst. State's Attorneys versus Asst. Public Defenders will reveal an alarming disparity in favor of Public Defenders, whose salaries are consistently as much as 20-25% higher than their State’s Attorney counterparts with identical start dates. A study revealed that APDs are paid on average $9,100 more per year than ASAs with comparable experience & tenure.

This is especially tragic in light of the equally large disparity between the workload of an Asst. State's Attorney as compared to that of an Asst. Public Defender. All one has to do is sit outside 26th and California or 1100 S. Hamilton (Juvenile Court), or any suburban courthouse, and watch the exodus of Asst. Public Defenders around 3:30 to 4:30 p.m., every single day. Indeed, there was a Tribune article about certain Asst. Public Defenders about awhile back, chronicling their abysmal work ethic.

In light of an annual budget crisis in Cook County, and with only a small fraction of the number of cases to handle and work up, and witnesses or clients to interview, an Asst. Public Defender’s job should not be both easier and more lucrative. A Cook County prosecutor’s job, which involves a stress level that few lawyers can even relate to, is hardly a 9 to 5 job (more like 8:30 to 7 + weekends). Why then are so many of their Public Defender counterparts – largely an otherwise hard-working and dedicated group – able to get away with a six- or seven-hour day?

Where the Cook County State's Attorney's Office is responsible for investigating, charging and prosecuting nearly 100% of the crimes in Cook County, the Public Defender is merely responsible for defending a comparatively small percentage of those same cases. In light of the thousands of defendants who have private counsel or choose to represent themselves, and for every defendant that remains a fugitive (again, thousands) the Asst. State's Attorney does not enjoy the same decreased workload, but is somehow paid less.

Aside from their comparatively low compensation (as compared to both Public Defenders and other county prosecutors around the country), Cook County Asst. State’s Attorneys are required to perform duties above and beyond their courtroom assignments which the Public Defenders have no role in. For example, the Felony Review Unit is staffed 24/7/365, and requires Asst. State’s Attorneys to work 12-hour shifts for days in a row, traveling, unprotected, to the bowels of Chicago to assist the police in investigating felony offenses and other violent crimes. For this, they are not compensated for their own travel, for overtime, or for their accrued sick, personal or vacation time which goes unused owing to the nature of the assignment. This assignment can last as long as two years, and Assistants are later rotated back into the Felony Review Unit for a second stint.

Central Bond Court is also staffed seven days a week, 365 days per year by both Asst. State’s Attorneys and Asst. Public Defenders. Whereas the Public Defenders arrive an hour or two before court, the State’s Attorneys are there four to five hours before court, conducting background checks, preparing proffers for court, and filing hundreds of motions and violations every single day. On weekends, the Asst. State’s Attorneys are required to do this without pay, while Public Defenders are paid $150 in overtime per day.

In court, it is the Asst. State’s Attorney who is responsible for running the court-call. It is the Asst. State’s Attorney who is responsible for procuring, copying and tendering all discovery. It is the Asst. State’s Attorney who must subpoena, account for, and marshal the witnesses. It is the Asst. State’s Attorney who must track down private attorneys who do not show up for court. It is the Asst. State’s Attorney who must call up to the Public Defender’s Office to find out where Mr. So-and-so’s Public Defender is. It is the Asst. State’s Attorney who is still in court long after the Public Defenders have either left for the day or are no where to be found.

It is utterly unconscionable for this County to force prosecutors to obtain second jobs in order to keep a job that they love; a job which neither the County Board nor the residents of Cook County even remotely appreciate.

No employee in the Cook County State’s Attorneys Office has even received a piddling cost-of-living increase in three years. The Office of the Public Defender has received one each year (the last as recently as June 1). How is this possible, and why do we tolerate it? Why do expect highly talented, honest and hard-working Asst. State’s Attorneys to continue to work for less and less money each year?

That Cook County treats non-unionized employees as second class citizens (the PDs are unionized) should outrage its residents. The message this sends is that criminal justice in Cook County is of minimal importance. At a minimum, it indicates that criminal defense takes primacy over criminal investigation & prosecution.

In light of law school loans as high as they have ever been (some topping $150,000), it is especially crucial to at least attempt to attract eager, ethical and qualified prosecutors with a salary that is at least commensurate with their Public Defender counterparts, whose job requirements do not even resemble that of a Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Every dedicated Asst. State's Attorney truly appreciates your support on their behalf.

Anonymous said...

Honest to God, I hope every Cook County resident reads your blog as well as the assistant states attorney's comment!

Well done, and aptly stated. Prosecutors in Chicago have put up with so much lately it's sickening. To think that public criminal defense attorneys are paid so much more than our prosecutors makes my blood boil.

Why should it make any difference at all whether they're in a union or not? Why are the public defenders unionized at all? Isn't the legal profession a ... profession?! And why should that fact affect how much money they make?

Does Todd Stroger even comprehend how valuable the states attorneys are & what they do for Chicago? According to that website, Stroger's own "special legal assistant" makes nearly $125,000. I wonder if she's ever even been to 26th Street & California. (I wonder if Stroger could even find it on a map).

Keep up the good work Cook County ASA's! You ARE appreciated, & you DO deserve equal pay for all the good things you do for Chicago!

-Robert (Franklin Park)

Anonymous said...

I will not rehash the above comments, but here's another example of the disparate treatment of the State's Attorney's Office by the County Board.

The PDs Office receives double the amount for training that the SAO receives, $70,000 vs. $140,000 per year!

Considering that the PD has 540 lawyers versus 800 in the SAO, the PDs receive $260.00 per lawyer each year for training compared to $87.50 for each ASA.

Evidently it is more important to train the defenders of the criminals than protectors of the People.

Anonymous said...

My son is a Cook County Assistant State's Attorney. He served with the U.S. Army in 1996 in the Peace Keeping Mission to Bosnia, helping the residents there, as a Civil Affairs Specialist.

I have had the privilege to meet many of his co-workers in the office. Their sense of justice and commitment to individuals know no bounds. They are among the best of what our legal profession has to offer.

This is just a personal reflection to all of the facts stated in the above commentaries.

Anonymous said...

Private or public sector; one cannot tell the Emporer he has no clothes. I have met very few LEADERS in business who are willing to listen to criticism or facts about the impact of their decisions/indecisions.
To the ASA's who are feeling the low morale, I say quit the job and move on; that's what I did and have no regrets. No, I was not an ASA, far from it having been an industrial computer salesman; but when it got to the point that what I saw going on could only be called "stupid"; I knew it was time to say goodbye.
So say goodbye and remember to vote and maybe someone will get the message; even if it's "too late".

Anonymous said...

Isn't it bad enough that our local prosecutors have to work in the squalor that is 26th & Cal., but they have to do it for next to minimum wage?

Can someone explain to me why these dedicated individuals who have worked hard to obtain advanced degrees (doctor of laws) are not only responsible for effectively prosecuting crime, but they are somehow expected to do it for substantially less pay than their public defender counterparts?

No wonder most lawyers are drawn to the private sector, which compensates even its younger attorneys (associates) at nearly five times … FIVE TIMES, as much as new assistant state’s attorneys. How can the Cook County SAO possibly compete with that kind of incentive?

I wonder if your readers are aware that the public defenders even get “bonuses” for signing their union contracts. In 2006, they all received $500 checks for “agreeing” to sign their contract during negotiations. Are you kidding me?! Then, they get regular raises on top of that, combined with their deserved annual cost-of-living adjustments.

The public defenders earn and deserve every dime they make, but why are our prosecutors, whose jobs are infinitely more difficult, paid so much less? I imagine it has more to do with the political climate in Chicago (and Stroger’s disdain for prosecutors) than with a bona fide lack of funds or public support. Let’s not forget that Todd Stroger actually commandeered an attorney from the public defender’s office to serve has his own personal counsel. The Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney actually represents the County and all of its employees in an official capacity. Stroger has utterly perverted the process.

Let’s make at least some effort to attract the best and the brightest young attorneys by offering at least equal pay. And let’s give them salaries that at least cover their rent and groceries, and which keep pace with increasing cost-of-living. Our prosecutors deserve this, and all of our county residents deserve that we hire AND KEEP the best prosecutors.

Anonymous said...

Your column may be a matter of too little, too late. Word has spread around the State's Attorney's Office on Tuesday, July 3rd, that that Stroger's budget officers & John Daley have offered prosecutors a non-retroactive 3% raise and a $1,000 "pain & suffering" sum. Meanwhile the Asst Public Defenders are 8% into their 4 year contract that will result in a 12.75% COLA raise.
What a joke.
At one of the County Board meetings earlier this year, it was revealed that, AT MOST, Asst Public Defenders handle 65% of the Felony cases in Cook County Courts.
I'm looking forward to John Daley's explanation at the next County Board meeting on 7/10.

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't the Cook County State's Attorney's Office sue the County Board, naming Todd Stroger & all his hack relatives (whom he has installed with six-figure salaries SINCE the budget crisis) as defendants?

ASAs are truly viewed as expendable in Cook County. No wonder so many have flocked to private practice where they can make more money in three months.

Would it shock anyone to learn that Cook County has two "Marble Washers" who "earn" about $55,000 a year? Starting salaries for new ASAs is about $48,000, & they don't hit $55 grand for another four years. I imagine one does not graduate from Marble-Washer School with $150,000 in loans. And, no doubt, those much-needed marble-washers have received cost-of-living increases for each of the last three years too. Guess you really do have to be in a union in Chicago to be treated fairly.

How pathetic. We need good, ethical prosecutors now more than ever. Why isn't Stroger doing more to keep them here? Instead, he's actually encouraging them to leave. I think the "brain drain" has already occurred in Stroger's office (assuming he started with one).

Clifton Hearaldsmith, Chicago