The Passion Drain: Salaries So Low Even the Dedicated Can’t Stay
Last month, I received the below resignation letter from one of our experienced public defenders. He had been with DPA for five years and was well-respected in his office. They are very disappointed to see him go.
As context for his letter, a promotion to Staff Attorney III in DPA means that this attorney achieved the highest position in the entire agency for a non-supervisory attorney. That meager pay raise he received would be his last salary increase in his DPA career unless and until he is approved as a supervisor, but there is only one supervisor position in each office and his is unlikely to leave for many years. So, in that context, it was a moment of clarity when he realized that it was not going to get any better any time soon.
Defenders have always been low paid, but there has usually been a career ladder that would allow dedicated public servants to stick with it while making sacrifices in their financial goals. Sadly, that is not the case anymore. Defenders are increasingly being seen as interchangeable parts in a machine, adequately functional and fully replaceable when needed without detriment to the operation of the machine. Those of us with experience know that this is not true at all. An experienced, trained, and passionate defender makes the system run better in every way. Dockets run more smoothly, law enforcement officers do their jobs better, prosecutors are more prepared, clients are better served and more satisfied, court clerks are happier, and justice is served more fairly and accurately.
Unless adequate pay for defenders can be established, I fear I will receive many more letters like this one. And defenders, clients, courts, and the public will suffer as a result.