The Cautionary Instruction: Public defenders and prosecutors underpaid

Friday, 16 May 2014 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

The Massachusetts Bar Association, Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation found that Massachusetts ranks dead last in annual salaries paid to public defenders and that the county prosecutor is often the lowest-paid person in the courtroom, finishing behind custodial workers.

Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the bar association told the Boston Globe “There is definitely a public safety aspect to all of it… [t]ax dollars are not being spent in a wise and appropriate fashion.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 landmark decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, required states to provide lawyers for defendants, regardless of their ability to pay—a ruling that transformed the nation’s legal landscape. More than fifty years later, defender resources remain scarce and prosecutors have not fared much better.

Last year, after furloughing of 22 lawyers, a Detroit prosecutor said her office was stretched too thin to cover all traffic court and domestic violence cases.

Abe Krash, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who helped represented Gideon has pointed out, “In public defender offices, there are many extremely conscientious attorneys, but they are tremendously underfunded and overburdened.”

A 2011 report by the Justice Policy Institute found that most of the country’s public defender offices lacked enough attorneys to meet nationally established caseload guidelines. Also, the report found that most defender offices did not have sufficient support staff, such as investigators and paralegals.

“When defenders do not have access to sufficient resources, they may be unable to interview key witnesses, collect or test physical evidence, or generally prepare and provide quality defense for their client, resulting in poorer outcomes for the client,” the report concluded.

An exhaustive new analysis of defender workloads in Missouri, sponsored by the American Bar Association, described by legal experts as the most detailed and credible of its kind, has provided numbers to back up the claim that defenders face overwhelming workloads.

For the study, carried out in 2013 by an accounting firm, the 375 lawyers in the Missouri State Public Defender System recorded how they spent their time in five-minute increments.

Independently, a panel of private and public lawyers estimated the average time a defense lawyer in Missouri needed to properly argue cases of varying severity, including duties such as consulting with the defendant, investigating evidence, conducting depositions and researching legal options, as well as their time in court.

“We found we are worse off than we thought we were,” Cathy R. Kelly, director of the state public defender system told the New York Times.

The panel found, on average, that 47 hours were needed to prepare for serious felonies. Missouri defenders spent about nine hours preparing those cases. For misdemeanors, defenders needed 12 hours. However, they spent only about two hours per case.


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.

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