By Lisa Redmond
BOSTON — By day, they put bank robbers, rapists and kidnappers behind bars.
But at night and on weekends some Middlesex prosecutors moonlight as sales clerks, waitresses, bartenders and in other minimum-wage positions just to pay the bills.
After two years in the Middlesex DA’s appeals division, Assistant District Attorney James Kerr left the office seven months ago to work as in-house counsel for a financial services company.
“I couldn’t afford to stay,”said Kerr, who is married with one child and a crushing six-figure student loan debt.
“With a young, growing family, we were just stretched too thin financially,” he said of his two-year tenure at the Middlesex DA’s Office. “I would have liked to stay, but I was treading water for two years and then I was offered a terrific opportunity with a wonderful company.”
While not giving his exact salary, Kerr said even starting out as junior counsel at the financial services company he almost doubled his salary just by walking in the door.
Such is the plight of many of what the Mass Bar Association’s report calls some of the “working poor,” who have full-time jobs as low-paying assistant district attorneys and public defenders, but have to work second jobs just to make ends meet or must eventually leave the jobs they love due to financial pressure.
In the wake of a Mass Bar Association’s report on compensation, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan has called for increased pay for prosecutors.
“Every year we hire new ADAs who are idealistic and eager to do the job and help protect the commonwealth. We spend the next few years turning them into talented, experienced trial attorneys, and they become great prosecutors just as they are preparing to make life decisions that are unworkable given the low salaries we can offer,” Ryan said in a statement.
She added, “The stark economic realities of the position have made it impossible for most of our attorneys to raise families, buy homes, or even pay off their law school loans, leading far too many talented ADAs to leave public service. We need to fix this now.”
The report found that the starting salary of $37,500 for an assistant district attorney was substantially less than their peers in other comparable public legal positions. The starting salary for assistant county attorneys in New Hampshire is $52,000, and deputy assistant state’s attorneys in Connecticut start at $60,000.
Ryan joined the Mass Bar Association Commission in calling for an increase in starting salaries to $55,000, increased budget items to pay for the raises, and future steps to keep the levels of compensation equal to that of other public-sector attorneys.
The report also called for budgets for those agencies to be boosted by 20 percent to give current staff members a pay hike. Salaries must also be tied to cost-of-living increases, something that lawyers for other government agencies frequently receive, but which has never been provided for criminal-justice attorneys, according to the report.
The report also called for an overhaul of the rules for what is known as the Private Counsel Division in the state’s public defender agency.
The study was conducted by the MBA’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation, which included a current and former judge, bar association officials, defense attorneys and former district attorneys.
“Assistant district attorneys, assistant attorneys general, public defendants and bar advocates (lawyers appointed to defend those who are indigent) are grossly underpaid, earning far less than their counterparts in comparative jurisdictions across the country,” the report states.
While the report acknowledges that prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys have not pursued their careers to get rich, they should be able to pay off college and law school loans, afford to move out of their parents’ home, get married, buy a house and have children.
“The unvarnished truth is the compensation is so poor that it drives these lawyers from the criminal justice system into the roads of the working poor,” the report states.
The report states that Massachusetts ranks “dead last” in annual salaries paid to public defenders through the Committee for Public Counsel Services and that state prosecutors are often the lowest-paid person in a courtroom, finishing behind custodial workers.
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