Fighting Crime Doesnt Pay

It was Tom Campbell’s dream to be a prosecutor. He lived that dream for six years, joining the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office straight out of Northeastern Law School in 1993. But last November, Campbell quit to join a private law firm in Boston. Why? “I left,” he says, “because I couldn’t support my family.”

Meanwhile, Brian Cullen is counting down the days that he’ll be able to remain a prosecutor. Cullen took a nearly $100,000 pay cut last year to join the Suffolk County DA’s office, handling appeals. But with two young children, his wife working part time, and a mortgage to pay, he’s burning through the savings he accrued in four years at Bingham Dana LLP, a white-shoe firm in Boston.

“I really love this job,” Cullen says. But he knows he can’t stay long. “The truth is that our expenditures are greater than our income. You can’t go on forever like that,” he says. He figures he has “another 18 months or 24 months before I hit zero, barring a significant change in our income.”

Lawyers don’t usually get much sympathy for their salaries–unless they do criminal work for the state. The average starting salary for an assistant district attorney–pay scales are set separately in each of the 11 DA’s offices–was $27,545 as of July 1, 1999. This year, that is slated to go up to $30,091, with the best-paid prosecutors, in Essex County, making all of $32,500.

That makes Massachusetts ADAs among the worst-paid in the nation. According to a survey last year of 13 sample jurisdictions by The National Law Journal, only prosecutors in Jefferson County (Louisville), Ky., fared worse, earning an entry-level salary of $24,030. Prosecutors in Baltimore County, Md; Oakland, Calif.; and Manhattan, among others, all made more.

The Bay State ADAs also earn less than many non-lawyers working in the same courthouses. Probation officers make $42,166 to start, for instance. ADAs also earn less than lawyers working for other state agencies. Last year, the minimum starting salary for an attorney working in a state department’s legal office was $39,669.

To make ends meet, prosecutors–many of whom are shouldering $50,000 or $100,000 in law-school loans–do a lot of moonlighting. “More than a third of the people who work in Suffolk County have part-time jobs,” Campbell says.” I think you’ll find that in almost every DA’s office.” By law, the prosecutors can’t practice law on the side, so some teach adult-education or college courses. Campbell taught nights at his law school alma mater. Others tend bar or wait tables.

Low pay has made turnover in the ranks of ADAs legendary, especially on the district court level, where prosecutors learn their trade and then, for the most part, take their skills to more lucrative lines of legal work. “After six years as a prosecutor, I was one of the more experienced people on the staff,” says Campbell.

The district attorneys, who obtained from the Legislature a long-awaited pay raise of $21,789 for themselves–to $117,499–earlier this year, are not convinced that the turnover in their offices does any harm. “I can’t say it necessarily adversely affects the ability of our office to respond to the needs of the community we serve,” says Plymouth County District Attorney Michael Sullivan, immediate past president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. “In fact, most organizations agree that turnover is healthy.”

But Cullen says there is a price to such turnover, “not only a financial cost but a cost to the community.” In the time it takes some cases to get to trial, he says, victims may have to deal with two or three different ADAs. “I think that’s unsettling for someone who’s been robbed or beaten or raped,” he says. Plus, Cullen adds, “The truth is, experienced prosecutors get more convictions than inexperienced prosecutors.”

It’s not only in conviction rate that experience counts. Larry Mayes, a street worker with the Ella J. Baker House in Boston, can’t stand it that the ADAs he deals with, working out creative dispositions that serve both troubled young people and public safety, are gone within a couple of years. “I would love to have [prosecutors] who are in for three to five years, know the kids, know the cases, and also get to know the community,” says Mayes.

That’s not a luxury most prosecutors can afford. Take Campbell. He was hired in 1993 at a salary of $25,000. It took him almost four years to break the $30,000 barrier, he says. In the time he was with the DA’s office, he and his wife had two children. Then, in November 1999, with mortgage payments to make and a third child on the way, he finally, reluctantly, opted for more lucrative work. He’s now representing plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases at Bergstresser & Associates in Boston.

Sullivan says he sympathizes, but points out that the low pay has been no obstacle to hiring bright, young talent. “We always have far more interest in our vacancies than we have ability to hire,” says Sullivan.

And sympathy aside, the DAs say they simply don’t have the money to pay more. “It’s not an unwillingness,” says John Conte, district attorney of Worcester County. “It’s a question of getting the proper budget appropriation to do it.”

With that point, however, Rep. Paul Haley (D-Weymouth), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has no sympathy. He notes that DAs have gotten annual budget increases averaging 7 percent over the past four years, far outstripping inflation. If ADAs have a beef about their pay, “they need to take that up with the elected district attorney who they work for,” says Haley, a former ADA himself.

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But Haley is also losing patience with this chronic courtroom pleading. “If we’re going to continue to hear this [salary] complaint,” he says, “maybe we’ll have to lay out a salary schedule.” While that might help the ADAs’ plight, it’s certain to agitate their bosses, who don’t want their spending decisions dictated to them.

For now, at least, it seems young prosecutors are left to ask the same question as Dickens’s poor Oliver Twist: “Please, sir, may I have some more?”