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Low pay leads to high job turnover

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When Chad Lewis went looking for a deputy prosecutor, he hired a “very sharp, competent person” who had no prosecutorial experience and had not yet passed the bar exam.

Lewis, prosecutor in Jefferson County, has three deputy prosecutors in his office, two are paid by the state and the other is paid by the county. The vacancy opened when the county-paid deputy left after five years to take a position in a private law firm that paid roughly $15,000 more.

“I don’t blame him for leaving,” Lewis said.
 

lewis-chad-wide-15col.jpg Chad Lewis, prosecutor in Jefferson County, had his request for another deputy prosecutor denied. (Photo courtesy of The Madison Courier)

Two-thirds of the résumés submitted for the position were from law students, and while he would have rather hired someone with five to six years of experience, the low salary coupled with having to live in a small community proved too unattractive.

Now, he may be wondering how long his new hire will stay.

“I would say salary has been an obstacle to retention here in the past,” Lewis said.

The situation in Jefferson County highlights the squeeze on today’s public sector attorneys. Paychecks, historically low compared to others in the legal profession, may be too small to support a family, and student loan debt is often too high to repay on a public salary.

A survey of public interest and public sector attorneys by NALP, the Association for Legal Career Professionals, found that salaries had grown little between 2004 and 2012. According to the “2012 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report,” the current median entry-level salary for public defenders is $50,500 and for prosecuting attorneys is $50,000. This is about 25 percent higher than the 2004 median entry-level salaries of $39,000 and $40,000, respectively.

Based on the findings, NALP concluded that at a time when salaries in the public sector have just kept pace with inflation, the cost of legal education and average law student loan debt are increasing at a much higher rate. The report questioned whether law students have economic incentive to enter the public sector.

However, interest in these careers remains high, prosecutors and public defenders in Indiana say. Many attorneys applying for these positions have a strong desire and dedication to be a public servant, but they often struggle to make the job a long-term career because of the salary.

The consequence is that after a few years, the attorneys are leaving the offices and counties are deprived of those lawyers’ experience and training.

Paycheck to paycheck

Victoria Bailey began working for the Marion County Public Defenders Agency in August 2008 and is an appellant public defender. It is a job she loves, a job she believes in, and a job, she admits, she did not take for the paycheck.

“I care very deeply about the Constitution and assuring people’s rights are protected,” Bailey said. “Being able to do something I am passionate about is more important than money.”

Still, the small compensation would not enable her to pay her student loans and raise a family. She does not blame her boss, Robert Hill, chief public defender, but rather believes her pay may reflect the public’s perception of her job. Bailey believes some people may not think a public defender is important because some of the clients can be unsavory individuals.

Bailey admits she lives a simple lifestyle, riding the bus instead of owning a car and spending many evenings at home instead of going out, but, still, the low pay makes her feel undervalued and underappreciated. She wants a raise.

“It’s fair. It’s the right thing to do. I earned it,” she said. “Just because I can do without doesn’t mean I should do without.”

The NALP survey charted the narrative of low pay in every location. For the past four years, many public sector attorneys have been living paycheck to paycheck and unable to save money, said Steve Grumm, director of public service initiatives at NALP. This, in turn, calls into question the viability of the public sector as a career path.

Hill is frustrated by the low salaries his attorneys receive. Currently, the starting salary is $45,000, and that does not compensate his lawyers adequately considering their level of education.

The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office shares Hill’s concerns. Salaries start at $45,619 and increase as a deputy prosecutor gets promoted from misdemeanors to D felonies to major felonies.

Both Hill and Laurel Judkins, chief counsel for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, said the attorneys who work in their offices are dedicated, quality attorneys who want to work in the public sector. However, their ability to serve is hindered when they get married and have children. They tend to move on, many going into private practice, because the public sector paychecks cannot cover all the things raising a family require.

“It’s not that you want the pay to be exorbitant,” Hill said, “but you do want it to be adequate pay so a young man coming out of law school can say, ‘I can have a family, pay for my kids going to college,’ or she can say, ‘I can get married, buy a house.’”

Access to justice

Paychecks have been crunched particularly in recent years as municipalities try to tighten budgets to match declining revenues. What has not gotten smaller is the workload.

During Jefferson County’s recent budget hearings, Lewis asked the county to pay for another deputy prosecutor. He underscored his request by breaking down the numbers. Considering criminal cases alone and not counting in the traffic infractions and child support proceedings, his deputy prosecutors each handle an average of 375 cases annually, translating into an average of 5.5 hours spent on each case. When child support and infractions are included, the average time spend on each case dropped to 1.46 hours.

The limited time gets upended if a murder case goes to trial. Preparation, investigation and courtroom work can eat 100 hours which means other cases are getting zero time and, in Lewis’ words, “victims are not getting justice.”

In the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, the situation is much the same. About 65,000 charges are filed annually ranging from traffic violations to major felonies. No one, said Judkins, is sitting around the office with nothing to do.

Attorneys in both the prosecutor’s and the public defender offices regularly take work home and come in on the weekends to keep pace with the case load.

Salaries play a part in the workload dilemma. As the small paychecks push experienced prosecutors and public defense attorneys out, Grumm said the offices lose their institutional knowledge and work is done with less efficiency and effectiveness.

The whole criminal justice system suffers because the concern of paying a living wage to public sector attorneys is ultimately about providing access to justice, he said.

Hill has seen how turnover impacts his office. With less experienced attorneys, the office does not run as smoothly which can mean cases do not go to trial as soon and clients wait longer in jail.

The situation may not be improving any time soon. Jefferson County did not fund the additional deputy prosecutor and the request by the Marion County Prosectuor’s Office for a 3 percent cost of living raise in 2013 was not included in the city-county budget.

While their salaries have stagnated, the cost of living has increased to the point that, Judkins pointed out, deputy prosecutors are actually seeing smaller paychecks than in 2009.

“I think that when you don’t receive any sort of raise for over four years and the end result is you’re making less than what you were making four years ago, that’s very hard to swallow,” Judkins said.•

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  • Unrealistic
    If those new attorneys entering public sector jobs with an entry level salary of $50,000 and tons of benefits think they can do better in the private sector, they're fooling themselves. The market is so saturated, many law firms don't even pay salaries, or hourly...they're commission only. The prosecutor, the public defender who can walk out the door and make $15,000 at a law firm is the exception, not the rule. $50,000 is actually an excellent starting salary for an attorney, especially considering the benefits you get in the public sector.

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  1. Am I the only one who sees that the City is essentially giving away the MSA site AND giving millions to build new buildings on the site when this site would be the perfect place for the Justice Complex? Across from City-County, check; keeping it centrally located, check, etc. It's my understanding that the GM site must be purchased by the City from Motors Liquidation Company. STOP WASTING WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE AND OUR TAX DOLLARS! The Ballard Administration has not been known for it's common sense...never voted for him and never will!

  2. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

  3. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

  4. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

  5. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

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