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Fair pay crucial for Cook County's lawyers

Thursday, November 02, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Edwin A. Burnette, Cook County public defender
Letter to the Editor


Chicago -- This is in response to "Prosecutors object to lagging salaries; For some attorneys, joining the bar means moonlighting at pubs" (Metro, Oct. 1), which suggested that attorneys in the law office of the Cook County public defender make higher salaries than their counterparts in the Cook County state's attorney's office.

This should be read with caution.
The public defender's office recruits lawyers whose dedication to our work matches their skill and potential.

Notwithstanding the high turnover rate in the public sector, the law office of the Cook County public defender retains its employees because it is an office that is well-run and well-structured with a diverse workforce that is satisfied in spite of the daily challenges the staff faces as guardians of the liberty of those least able to defend themselves.

For attorneys employed by the law office of the Cook County public defender, representing poor people accused of crimes is a calling. When comparing average salaries of 941 state prosecutors with average salaries of 529 public defenders in Cook County, there is a potential for misunderstanding because 417 of the 941 prosecutors employed by the state's attorney are paid at lower levels, which reduces prosecutors' overall yearly averages considerably.

Moreover the salaries of those who supervise prosecutors far eclipse the salaries of those who supervise personnel in the public defender's office. State's attorney supervisors are paid anywhere from $7,000 to $22,000 a year more than their counterparts in the public defender's office. This results in a larger gap between the salaries of managers and rank-and-file lawyers in the state's attorney's office than there is in the law office of the Cook County public defender.

That said, parity should be the goal for everyone concerned. Prosecutors and public defenders, new attorneys and senior managers alike should be paid comparably and appropriately. For the criminal justice system to work best, each side must be well-represented. It also is agreed that the system would be seriously impaired by the requested budget cuts of 10 percent per agency.

Another cut to the public defender's personnel-driven budget would endanger those wrongly accused of crimes by restricting the constitutional guarantee of effective counsel.

It also would imperil systemwide initiatives to eliminate overcrowding at the Cook County Jail and hamper our ability to manage cases in a more efficient manner.

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