Saturday, April 12, 2008

Media, governor and legislature ignore statewide prosecution crisis

In the waning hours of 2005 the Kenosha News seized onto sensationalism when the front page trumpeted the very public resignation of disgruntled Deputy District Attorney Susan Karaskiewicz, a moment she now regrets.

But there's been hardly a peep from the newspaper folks about a far more sensational crisis at the Kenosha County District Attorney's office: the revolving door where up and coming young talent is forced to leave public service in order to make ends meet.

There wasn't a word in the Kenosha News a couple of weeks ago when rising star Jason Rossell said his farewell to hang out his shingle. Ditto for the depature of Richard Cole a few months earlier. Or rising stars Corey Chirafisi, Tom Perlberg and Erik Monson. And nothing's been said about others who would leave if the right opportunity came along.

Why the revolving door? It's because talented young men and women across the state and nation can't afford to remain in public service with incredibly low salaries and staggering student loan debts.

Putting it into perspective, I finished law school 27 years ago with just $6700 in debt. My first full year on the job I made $24,000 -- and that was the bottom rung of a "step system." That's over $51,000 in today's dollars but today's young prosecutors make $5,000 less and have six-figure student loans to repay.

The pay crisis was so bad in the 1980's that the legislature in 1989 made all Assistant District Attorneys state employees, a move designed to encourage competence and professionalism and provide a career path for those lawyers interested in public service. State prosecutors were then ranked in a "step system" grid according to their experience and much needed substantial pay raises.

But the "step system" was abandoned a couple of years later creating a disparity between us "old geezers" and new prosecutors who receive no longevity pay. As it stands today, they start at $46,000 and go nowhere in terms of pay progression. That means some new graduates make as much as prosecutors with five years or more on the job which explains why so many are leaving.

How bad is it?

Every district attorney's office in the state is understaffed, overworked and this comes at the expense of serving victims and protecting our citizens. In the past six years, we have lost 180 experienced prosecutors from service statewide due to the absence of pay progression ("step system"). That's a 50% turnover in just the last six years. The impact this is having on public safety is alarming. The risk to the justice system attributable to the lack of experience is aggravated by the caseload that each prosecutor is expected to carry.

The Legislative Audit Bureau Audit of Prosecutors (2007) revealed the State is over 132 prosecutors short. Here in Kenosha we're about 50% understaffed. The current crisis, intensified by the upcoming loss of 21 federally funded positions statewide should frighten and shock the public. If the state does not allocate resources to adequately fund, and retain prosecutors, we will continue to lose experienced criminal prosecutors and our ability to convict defendants accused of serious crimes will be severely disadvantaged.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The very reason the state took over the prosecution system was to foster professionalism, competence and longevity and end the revolving door. The governor and legislators have turned their backs on this promise and the public is largely unaware of the situation or its consequences.

A prosecutor's temper tantrum on her last day on the job makes the front page but the greater crisis is shrouded by media silence. Shame on them.


Dad29 said...

Well....when the priorities are RoadBuilders and General Contractors (not to mention a UW-system school in every village), then something's got to give.

Anonymous said...

Jeff Norman, a very talented Marquette University Law School grad who was assigned to my criminal court, left to return to his civil service position as a homicide detective with the Milwaukee Police Department, because his pay has a police officer was more than twice what he was earning as an Assistant District Attorney.

Yet the understaffing and underpaying of criminal prosecutors doesn't get even a peep of protest from the interest groups that spent millions of dollars in our recent Supreme Court race, supposedly in support of law and order.