Prosecutors, public defenders need improved compensation

Craig White / MCT

“In the criminal-justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”

Sound familiar? It’s the opening line of Law & Order, a weekly television drama that explored crime and punishment in America for 20 years. This catchy introduction is incomplete. The police and district attorneys aren’t the only important groups representing the people in the criminal justice system. Public defenders and judges play key roles as well.

Unfortunately, unlike this TV series, Florida’s prosecutors and public defenders’ don’t last for 20 seasons. Why not? Because they are grossly underpaid.

As Florida Tax Watch’s latest study shows, the average pay of our prosecutors and public defenders is the lowest in the United States. The average starting salary for prosecutors and public defenders around the country is about $50,000 per year. States with large populations and high crime like Florida pay $60,000 per year, but starting pay in Florida is under $42,000 per year, making it the lowest average compensation to such professionals.

This gross underpayment leads to high turnover that delays justice and prejudices public safety and individual freedom. This is the epitome of being penny wise and pound foolish. Increased pay would reduce turnover and give us a much more efficient and effective criminal justice system.

If Florida raised the average starting salaries to $50,000 for all of the state’s prosecutors and public defenders, reducing turnover by 50 percent, Floridians would actually save $5 million that it spends hiring and training new attorneys. And, Florida’s citizens would have a much better justice system.

To have safer communities, Florida must employ prosecutors who are smart, experienced and passionate about justice. The same is true for our public defenders. But to attract and retain good counsel, we must pay them fairly. By shortchanging those we entrust to fulfill the fundamental role of our criminal justice system, we are shortchanging ourselves and individuals who deserve justice.

Floridians do not want avoidable legal errors, inconsistent justice, undue delays in processing, prosecutorial arrogance or public defender acquiescence due to understaffing, but if we continue to pay these attorneys such low salaries, we cannot avoid this impediment to justice that puts our state and its citizens at risk. This is not smart justice.

Law & Order in Florida is real life, not a TV drama. And the revolving door of new attorneys in our justice system must stop. Crime traumatizes and changes lives forever. Spending more money on training costs for green employees is not the answer for these hard-working public servants, the taxpayers who are funding those training costs, or the people who miss out on justice as a result of an ill-prepared workforce, especially because of high turnover.

We would be wiser to use our taxpayers’ dollars to pay our state attorneys and public defenders fairly so we have a truly smarter, more efficient and more effective criminal justice system.

Kenneth Bell is a former Florida Supreme Court justice and Dominic Calabro is chief executive officer of Florida TaxWatch.

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