MBA report shines light on woeful criminal justice salaries

Issue June 2014 By Mike Vigneux

Salaries of attorneys who work in the state's criminal justice system are both "inadequate and inequitable," according to a May 2014 report from the Massachusetts Bar Association Blue Ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice Attorney Compensation.

The report, "Doing Right by Those Who Labor for Justice: Fair and Equitable Compensation for Attorneys Serving the Commonwealth in its Criminal Courts," analyzes the "declining economic status" of prosecutors, public defenders and bar advocates due to low salaries. (The full report can be accessed online at: It is the first study conducted on this topic since the MBA's groundbreaking "Callahan Report" in 1994.

Perhaps the most striking finding in the commission's report is that the lowest paid person in a Massachusetts courtroom is a new assistant district attorney ($37,500), whose salary ranks less than the courtroom custodian ($38,796) and the switchboard operator ($42,834).

Massachusetts also ranks last in the nation in public defenders' salaries ($32,786.89) when cost of living is factored in. Public defenders are the third-lowest paid workers in a Massachusetts courtroom, and the salaries of entry-level assistant district attorneys and assistant attorneys general rank well below those in neighboring states.

"Assistant district attorneys, assistant attorneys general, public defenders and bar advocates (lawyers appointed to defend indigents) are grossly underpaid, earning far less than their counterparts in comparative jurisdictions across the country," the report notes. "Embarrassingly, other states put a higher premium on the services of their criminal justice work force than does Massachusetts."

The commission found that entry-level salaries for assistant district attorneys in Massachusetts ($37,000) are far less than those in New Hampshire ($52,000) and Connecticut ($60,000). Salaries for entry-level assistant attorneys general in Massachusetts ($55,000) rank less than those in Rhode Island ($56,000), New York ($60,000), New Jersey ($62,000), Connecticut ($73,000) and New Hampshire ($74,000).

The report also notes that a wide salary gap exists between federal attorneys and state attorneys in Massachusetts, with prosecutors' starting salaries significantly less than other state agency attorneys. A Counsel I attorney receives a salary in the range of $54,946 to $79,659, and a Counsel II attorney earns between $62,978 and $80,000. In comparison, a state assistant district attorney starts at $37,500.

In March, the commission convened a hearing at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston, where it heard testimony from several district attorneys, public defenders and bar advocates about the impact of low salaries. Statements made at the hearing were incorporated in the commission's report.

"The testimony taken from lawyers practicing on the criminal side of our justice system was incredibly heart-rending and powerful," said MBA Past President Richard P. Campbell, who chaired the commission. "I started the proceedings believing that these lawyers were underpaid, but the enormity of their hardships and their resolute commitment to professionalism despite them was emotive and awe inspiring."

In addition to Campbell, members of the commission included: Denise Squillante, MBA past president; Hon. William D. Delahunt, former congressman and district attorney for Norfolk County; Hon. Suzanne V. DelVecchio (ret.), former Superior Court chief justice, mediator, Commonwealth Mediation and Conciliation, Inc.; Gerard T. Leone, partner, Nixon Peabody and former district attorney, Middlesex County; Hon. Charles Johnson, former chief justice, Boston Municipal Court; Richard Lord, chief executive officer and president, Associated Industries of Massachusetts; Randy Chapman of Chelsea, MACDL past president (2007-2009); and Martin Kane, past president of the Middlesex County Bar Association and former Middlesex assistant district attorney. Martin W. Healy, MBA chief legal counsel and chief operating officer, served as commission counsel.

Key recommendations
The commission provided suggestions within the report on how to improve the challenges assistant district attorneys, public defenders and bar advocates face living in a state where compensation rates have changed little in 20 years.

Some of the key recommendations include:

  • Immediately raise starting salaries for assistant district attorneys, assistant attorney generals and full-time public defenders (attorneys in the Public Counsel Division of CPCS) to $55,000, which must be fully funded with commensurate increases for more experienced lawyers.
  • Increase budget line items applicable to compensation of lawyers employed by district attorneys offices, the Office of the Attorney General, and CPCS to allow for a 20 percent increase in salaries.
  • Take steps to keep the levels of compensation of full-time criminal justice attorneys at least equal to that of other public sector attorneys.
  • Eliminate rules and practices of CPCS applicable to bar advocates, which treat these lawyers differently than and more inferior to full-time public defenders.
  • Address bar advocate compensation to ensure: 1) compensation for bar advocate programs are fair and reasonable and meet prevailing standards in the relevant communities, 2) hourly rates for bar advocates are structured such that serious felony cases in Superior Court attract participants, and 3) hourly rates for bar are reviewed whenever a substantial change in the cost of living is experienced and on an regular biennial period.

Report garners media attention
The commission's report has already shined a light on this critical issue by garnering strong media attention on both a national and regional level after it was adopted by the MBA's House of Delegates in May.

First appearing in print in the Boston Globe on May 9 ("Criminal justice lawyers are becoming 'working poor,' study says"), the issue of low criminal justice salaries has been covered in print and on television, and by two leading national online law blogs: The Wall Street Journal Law Blog and Above the Law.

On May 19, commission member and former Middlesex County District Attorney Martin Kane appeared on "Broadside" on New England Cable News, along with current Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan, where they discussed ADA/defender salaries and the commission's report with host Jim Braude.

Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham examined low ADA/public defender salaries in her May 22 column, "A salary that's hard to defend." Abraham wrote: "When we shortchange them, we shortchange the entire justice system. And our vaunted progressive ideals are exposed as hollow."

Other outlets that covered the report included the Lowell Sun, ABA Journal and the MetroWest Daily News.

"I hope that the report reaches the commonwealth's legislative decision-makers both physically, meaning that they receive it and actually read it, and spiritually, meaning that they are moved to do something about this travesty," said Campbell, the commission chair. "I also hope that the people and institutions who drive public opinion in our state will seize on this report, adopt its conclusions and push the commonwealth to act. There is really only one fair resolution of the current problem - ending the status quo."