It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep young PDs and state attorneys
Front-line prosecutors and their assistant public-defender counterparts are leaving government service at such a fast rate that public safety is becoming an issue.
At least that’s the conclusion of 15th Circuit State Attorney Dave Aronberg, a former legislator and government lawyer liaison to The Florida Bar Board of Governors.
Addressing the board at a recent meeting in Naples, Aronberg warned that across the state, one in five assistant state attorneys, and one in five assistant public defenders, left the public sector last fiscal year.
“It is the highest rate we have had in at least six years,” Aronberg said. “And it is becoming a public safety issue.”
Aronberg referred to a 2014 study by the business-backed government watchdog, Florida TaxWatch, Inc., that concluded raising salaries for assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders would actually save taxpayers money in the long run.
The report showed that starting annual salaries for assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders averaged $41,700, in 2014, with 1,331 assistant state attorneys and assistant PDs earning less than $50,000 per year.
“This pay deficiency becomes more acute when you consider that over 40 percent of ASAs and APDs in Florida (many in their third or fourth year) earn less than the average starting pay around the country,” the report states. “In the first three years, the period when most decide whether to continue or move on, the aggregate pay shortage for ASAs and APDs in Florida ranges from $30,000 to $50,000.”
Buddy Jacobs, a veteran spokesperson for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, described the situation this way in the report’s introduction:
“There are two kinds of prosecutors in Florida, those leaving . . . and those looking.”
The study showed that California paid starting prosecutors and public defenders $92,000; Texas, $65,000; and New York, $59,500. Starting pay in Georgia was $56,286 and North Carolina, $53,000.
Two years ago, Aronberg was able to increase starting salaries in his office to $42,000, but that has done little to slow attrition.
“Many times, you will have a young prosecutor making $42,000, who is sitting at a table discussing a case with a first-year cop from Boca Raton, who is making $62,000 a year,” Aronberg said. “And this is someone with seven years of education and six figures of education debt.”
Aronberg says his office is still flooded with job seekers, with 10 applying for every candidate who is hired.
“But the problem is, once they get to be three- to five-year lawyers, and they’ve had about 50 or more trials, they are very attractive to private law firms who will pay them a lot more.”
Using a business-model estimate for the cost of turnover that equates to 50 percent of the departing attorney’s salary — the figure includes lower productivity, increased work for remaining lawyers, lost knowledge and training, and recruitment costs — the TaxWatch report estimated Florida was losing nearly $16 million a year.