DAs in Mass. see funding imbalance

Contend they get less state aid than public defenders

By Michael Norton
State House News Service / February 26, 2011

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BROCKTON — District attorneys yesterday urged lawmakers to address a growing disparity between funding for prosecutors and attorneys who represent indigent individuals charged with crimes.

At a state budget hearing in Brockton, Bristol District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter said Massachusetts has the most expensive system of providing indigent defense services in the United States, while providing “strikingly low’’ funding levels for district attorneys. He said those DAs have taken a 10 percent funding cut over the past 2 1/2 years while facing new technology costs associated with modern-day prosecution efforts.

Sutter said prosecutors earn an average starting salary of $40,000 per year, much less than their counterparts in other states. Many, he said, have left district attorney offices to work fewer hours and earn more money as so-called bar advocates representing indigent individuals, and are getting paid from a growing state-supported budget for the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

Sutter also estimated that as many as 15 percent of individuals receiving free legal services are not eligible, and suggested that more vigorous screening is needed.

“The system of determining indigency has to change,’’ said state Representative James Dwyer, Democrat of Woburn, a former state Probation Department worker.

State Representative Viriato deMacedo, Republican of Plymouth, predicted the Legislature and Governor Deval Patrick would address the problem this year.

“It is serious. It’s hard to look at these facts and to suggest that the playing field is level,’’ deMacedo said. “I believe that this is the year that we have to address this issue.’’

Patrick has put forward a plan to reduce contracted indigent defense work and bring more of those services onto the state payroll, which the administration says would save tens of millions of dollars. There is “clearly some pushback’’ to that plan, deMacedo said, referring to skeptics who question the promised savings.

Sutter said the district attorneys have different views of Patrick’s plan and called it an “excellent conversation starter.’’

Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe said district attorneys have been told for years that there are insufficient revenues to support budget increases, but have watched many supplemental budgets clear the Legislature to allocate more funding for public defenders. He compared the $92 million allocated for prosecutors this fiscal year with the $168 million appropriated for public defenders.

Public defenders have rejected prosecutors’ contention that there is a funding imbalance, noting that prosecutors are often aided in other ways, such as through the investigative work of police departments, which are funded separately. In addition, they point to the constitutional entitlement of criminal defendants to an attorney.

During a policy debate that heated up in November, public defenders argued that prosecutors had distorted funding statistics, noting that their budget also includes funding for noncriminal defendants in family court and mental health cases.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the average starting salary of a Massachusetts prosecutor as that of the overall average salary of a public prosecutor. The average starting salary for a district court prosecutor in Massachusetts is $40,000, according to a spokesman for Bristol District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter.