Fernandez Rundle: Low pay cripples our criminal justice system
No matter where you live in Florida, it is no secret that your State Attorney’s Office needs help – funding help. Florida’s 20 State Attorneys are plagued with severe shortages of prosecutors and support staff which is having a negative impact on our ability to keep our communities safe. In the last year alone, my office has had 80 prosecutors resign. Florida’s 20 Public Defenders are also experiencing the same difficulties hiring and retaining attorneys and support staff. Despite our different roles in Florida’s criminal justice system, we are both experiencing the same problem: our Assistant State Attorneys (ASAs) and Assistant Public Defenders (APDs) are leaving public service faster than they can be trained and replaced. Their unacceptably low salaries are creating serious staffing problems which will impact every crime victim, every witness, and every criminal defendant.
Each member of The Florida Bar knows that ASAs and APDs are the only voices speaking for crime victims, witnesses, and criminal defendants in our felony and misdemeanor courts. As State Attorney for Florida’s largest Judicial Circuit, I particularly recognize that a shrinking number of prosecutors means crime victims face lengthy delays before getting their day in court. These delays add to the emotional and psychological scarring crime victimization inevitably creates. Delays cause many victims to give up, triggering their cases to fall apart and forcing prosecutors to drop the charges. For those who have suffered at the hands of a perpetrator, justice delayed, delayed, and delayed again is truly justice denied. High turnover rates create situations where attorneys handle serious cases, including armed robberies, rapes, and attempted murders, long before they are ready to do so, leading to potentially worse outcomes for the prosecution, defense, and community.
At last count, Florida has over 270 attorney vacancies and the numbers increase daily as potential hires and trial experienced prosecutors are lured away from our offices by the much higher salaries offered by other public agencies and civil law firms.
Currently, Florida has at least 450 support staff vacancies for the essential staff who create files, gather case materials and discovery, schedule depositions and other matters, and ensure victims and other witnesses are available for trial. This includes victim specialists who also assist the traumatized families of murder and violent crime victims through inevitable delays and eventual courtroom confrontations. In my office alone, we have been unable to fill 187 support staff vacancies. Many hardcore criminals calculate that fragile victims will crumble providing offenders with an easy path to freedom. Without sufficient prosecutors and support staff, their gambles often work to the benefit of the criminal and the detriment of the community.
Living in Miami is extraordinarily expensive. Home values in Miami rose by 18.8% over last year to approximately $450,000, while the average price for a one-bedroom apartment in Miami is upwards of $2,200 per month. It was recently reported that Miami-Dade now has the second highest cost of housing, surpassing Los Angeles and second only to New York City. Today, we are asking starting lawyers to bear these and other inflated costs of daily living while repaying law school loans averaging $160,000, to protect our community for a $50,000 annual salary. With private law firms paying significantly more than the starting salaries approved by the Florida Legislature (including medium size firms that often pay double what we do and large firms that pay up to quadruple what we do), State Attorney and Public Defender Offices are finding it increasingly difficult to compete for talent. It is estimated that the typical Florida lawyer charges between $200 and $420 per hour while we are asking our starting prosecutors to start working at 12% of that rate in what amounts to $24 per hour. A 2021 survey by the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (APA) indicated that the national average starting salary for a non-supervising prosecutor is $68,056. Our starting salaries at $50,000 place Florida’s prosecutors among the lowest paid in the country. The same APA survey reported the average salary of a non-supervising attorney nationally is $91,474. While public service is a commendable calling, our lawyers should not have to take a vow of poverty to do it.
We are requiring our attorneys and staff to manage crushing caseloads exacerbated by the pandemic-caused backlog while dealing with the stress of making financial ends meet. Our salary levels limit the pool of applicants to only those who can afford to work in public service, excluding individuals from diverse backgrounds and cultures whose unique perspectives and experiences can add greater insight and understanding to our criminal justice system.
The victims of our inability to hire and maintain lawyers and legal staff are the residents of our communities. Our serious staffing problems can only be remedied by creating a better pay scale for our lawyers and staff that is more commensurate with their tremendous responsibilities and rising costs of living.
This developing crisis impacts the personal security of each and every one of us. It truly affects the very safety of our streets and should be a priority budget appropriation for our governor, our Florida Legislature, and civic leadership throughout our great community and state. Our safety depends on it.
Katherine Fernandez Rundle is the state attorney for the 11th Judicial Circuit.