Miami-Dade County

Public defenders may get raise — and Miami’s state attorney is not happy about it

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle at a press conference in March.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle at a press conference in March. Miami Herald

Public defenders may be getting pay raises. And prosecutors may not.

And that isn’t sitting well with Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who on Monday emailed her entire staff to apologize — and to criticize Florida lawmakers, saying “our Legislature did not see fit to acknowledge your tireless work on behalf of our community.”

In unusually frank language, the longtime elected Democrat singled out Sen. President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, “who previously stated that he thinks the prosecution has an easier job than the defense,” according to her email.

At issue: Senate Bill 7030 boosts pay for public defenders with three years of experience or more by 6 percent. The bill, which passed the Senate’s appropriations committee on Monday, did not do the same for Florida prosecutors.

The issue, however, is not a done deal as the Senate and House leadership work to hash out final budget before Tuesday. Florida House Rep. Carlos Trujillo, the appropriations chairman and a former Miami-Dade prosecutor, told the Miami Herald that “we are still negotiating the raise.”

Prosecutors, however, will get some minimal relief. The bill did provide $1,400 extra annually for those making less than $40,000, which Fernandez Rundle described as a "small increase." 

Fernandez Rundle and Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez themselves will get a pay increase under the bill -- all state attorneys and public defenders would get a 10 percent bump in pay, with their salaries reaching nearly $170,000.

Judges of all types -- Supreme Court, appeals, circuit and county -- would also be in line for a 10 percent raise.

Everyone agrees that taxpayer-funded prosecutors and defense lawyers earn woefully low salaries, given the stakes involved in their jobs. Prosecutors are tasked with putting away criminals, while public defenders represent the poor who can’t afford lawyers.

But the issue of the pay differential between the two sides has long been a politically sensitive issue in South Florida’s criminal-justice community. Florida prosecutors have traditionally earned more money than their counterparts at the public defender’s office.

Martinez said Monday that bill solely addresses the longstanding wage inequity, which he says averages about $4,000 between attorneys on each side.

“It tries to provide parity in salaries between assistant public defenders and assistant state attorneys,” Martinez said.

In a letter sent to Miami-Dade lawmakers last month, Fernandez Rundle said the state allocates the same amounts per position to each side — but that public defenders have chosen to pay lawyers less while paying support staff more.

“In contrast, the state attorneys have chosen over time to pay their lawyers higher salaries in order to retain them and stop their extraordinary turnover we face each year,” she wrote.

About 50 Miami-Dade prosecutors leave their office each year. The office, in talking points sent to lawmakers, said “this is not a case of sour grapes.”

“We only ask that whatever is given to the public defenders be also given to the state attorneys,” the memo read.

Martinez, however, said “that argument doesn’t hold water” because his office has so little support staff. “Sixty percent of our employees are attorneys,” he said.