Politics

Prosecutors and Public Defenders to Senators: We Need Better Pay

By: Eric Giunta | Posted: December 7, 2012 3:55 AM
Rob Bradley and Trial Courtroom

Sen. Rob Bradley, left, and trial courtroom, right

Attorney General Pam Bondi was a no-show at Thursday morning’s meeting of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, but legislators still heard from various public agencies who warned that budget cuts are compromising the administration of justice across Florida.

“Pam Bondi, unfortunately, has a conflict today, but we look forward to her joining us in the near future,” announced chairman Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, after a series of introductions by senators and subcommittee staffers.

The attorney general was expected to present her priority initiatives for the coming year. At least according to her spokesman John Lucas, everyone but her seemed to have expected it. He told Sunshine State News that she had been placed on the inaugural meeting's agenda without her office’s knowledge, and he could not say when, if at all, she would be appearing before the subcommittee.

Asked what her legislative priorities would be, Lucas told the News those had not yet been finalized.

Several disappointed members of the Capitol Press Corps streamed out of meeting after Bradley’s announcement. What followed was almost 90 minutes of presentations by representatives of the state’s clerks and comptrollers, prosecutors and public defenders, the Parole Commission, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Department of Corrections, the Capital Collateral Regional Counsels, and the Office of Guardians ad Litem.

All pleaded for budgetary mercy, and even for more money.

“Our workload is increasing, it’s becoming more complex, and we’re becoming less experienced,” said Bill Eddins, state attorney for the 1st Judicial Circuit Court of Florida and president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. “We have some serious problems coming if we don’t serve our turnover problem.”

That turnover rate, Eddins told senators, was 16 percent statewide last year, and as high as 28 percent in the 4th Circuit, which includes Clay, Duval, and Nassau counties. In recent years, the 2nd Circuit, which includes Leon County, has seen turnover rates as high as 35 percent.

Eddins said prosecutors were leaving his office for private practice almost exclusively for the higher pay, though he reluctantly admitted to freshman Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, that he had no hard data – e.g., written responses to formal exit interviews – to back his anecdotes up.

“I personally talk to every assistant state attorney who leaves my office; pay is the only issue,” he insisted. “Invariably, they hate to leave us. They love their job. They get to go into the courtroom, and as the saying goes, you really can’t make the fact patterns [of our cases] up. It’s very exciting. The only issue, and this is true throughout the state, is salary. These people love to prosecute, but they leave because of low salary.”

Eddins told the subcommittee the starting salary for a trainee fresh out of law school is about $40,000, which goes up to about $47,000 after three years. These same lawyers tend to have between $80,000 and $100,000 in student loans to pay off.

“We’re spending a tremendous amount of time training these people to be good lawyers, and then to go out into private practice, only to come back and beat our brains out in court,” he told senators to scattered chuckles. “We do a good job at that, but I’d like to reach a point where we train lawyers to stay with us.”

He said 56 percent of prosecutors have been with the circuit courts for less than five years, 19 percent for between six and 10 years, 9 percent for between 11 and 15 years, 5 percent between 16 and 20 years, and 11 percent for 21 years or more.

He told Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, that while he had no documentation as to what effect this relative lack of experience has had on conviction rates, there is “no doubt we’re getting weaker as a group.”

Eddins’ remarks were seconded by Julianne Holt, public defender of Florida’s 13th Judicial Circuit and president of the Florida Public Defender Association. She said public defenders are experiencing the same problems, adding that when they leave their public sector work after three years, it’s usually for private sector salaries of between $75,000 to $100,000.

In his opening remarks, Sen. Bradley warned that the state is “not expected to receive a lot, if any, new money.” Further, he said there’s much about the state’s budgetary prospects that remain unknown. For example, the Florida Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality of the Legislature’s 2011 state employee pension reforms. If the reforms are struck down, that alone would purportedly leave as much as a $2 billion hole in the state’s budget.



Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116.


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