Pay hike for prosecutors

The Legislature may have granted the wish of the Commonwealth’s assistant district attorneys for more pay, but in doing so law makers have opened a budgetary Pandora’s box for their bosses.

Middlesex County District Attorney Martha Coakley had planned to raise the entry-level salary for assistant prosecutors in her office to $30,000 for the first time this year. But the Legislature, apparently looking to put the annual complaints of underpaid ADAs to an end (“Fighting crime doesn’t pay,” CW, Spring ’00), wrote into each district attorney’s appropriation this year a minimum salary of $35,000 for junior prosecutors. That means an immediate raise for new hires–but also lots of experienced prosecutors standing behind them with their hands out.

“The concept [of a salary floor] is great,” says Coakley. “The problem is in fairness.” If entry-level lawyers in her office get a pay boost–about 50 or so were making $35,000 or less, she says–more senior prosecutors should also get one. Out of the approximately 125 ADAs in her office, that means “about 80 to 90 people, at a minimum, [to whom] we needed to give a $5,000 raise in order to prevent wholesale defections and bad morale.”

Coakley is still trying to figure out how to make that happen. Her office got a $600,000 budget increase from the state this year–an amount much appreciated, she says, but not one that figured in an ADA pay raise. Using round numbers, if Coakley needs to give 100 staffers a pay raise of $5,000 each, that eats up $500,000 of her $600,000 expansion, she says. Rent on her agency’s offices also went up $82,000 this year. “That leaves me $12,000,” she says.

For now, she says she’s “doing some shifting around” and has cut back on the handling of white-collar-crime cases, moving three senior-level lawyers to other Superior Court duties. That’s to prevent vacancies from opening up at the District Court due to promotions to Superior Court–positions Coakley would have to fill with entry-level lawyers at mandatory $35K salaries. That balances Coakley’s budget, but leaves three lower-court prosecutors waiting for the promotion they’d been counting on.

Meanwhile, Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett has put on a hiring freeze. “Nobody’s going to get laid off,” he says, “but I am going to put off decisions regarding hiring new folks until we get a clearer picture on the finances.”

Both Coakley and Bennett say that they’ll approach the governor and the Legislature in January for more money to cover the raises. The state’s nine other DAs will likely follow suit. Geline W. Williams, executive director of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, says that of the 706 assistant district attorneys statewide, 244, or about 35 percent, were making less than $35,000 before the mandate came down.

The pay raise will make a difference in the lives of debt-burdened recent law school graduates among the ADAs, according to Marc Perlin, associate dean at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. “It’s still not competitive in any way with private industry,” Perlin notes. But, he says, “It certainly makes it more realistic for students to go out and survive economically and pay off their debts.”

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Brian Cullen, a Suffolk County assistant district attorney who is underwriting his own prosecutorial career with savings from four years at a private law firm in Boston, isn’t so sure. While he says the raise is “not an insignificant sum,” it’s not enough to make a prosecutor’s job financially viable for someone with debts and family obligations. “I don’t think it’s life-changing.”

The real test will be whether it stems turnover among ADAs.

Cullen says the real test of the pay raise will be whether it stems the rampant turnover among prosecutors–that is, whether it’s enough to make people “feel that they can stay a little bit longer.”