Prosecutors, public guardians deserve pay-hike justice
Monday, December 18, 2006
If it's galling to you, as a taxpayer, to see Cook County paying six figures to someone who has no clear duties, imagine what a weary prosecutor must be feeling. Assistant state's attorneys have been denied raises for several years due to the county's fiscal mess, yet the county somehow finds a way to pay Gerald Nichols, former County Board President John Stroger's patronage chief, $114,000 a year. Raises have also gone to the unionized lawyers in the public defender's office, while prosecutors got nothing.
The result is a disparity in pay between public defenders and prosecutors that is undermining morale in the state's attorney's office and threatening to create an exodus of some of the office's best and brightest lawyers, Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine warns. A prosecutor, on average, has a greater caseload than a public defender but makes $9,100 less, he said.
Devine points out that the County Board didn't set out to pay public defenders more than prosecutors. Rather, the disparity is inadvertent. Public defenders' pay is set by a negotiated contract, which the board usually approves as a matter of routine. Prosecutors, however, aren't represented by a union -- the Supreme Court has restricted prosecutors' right to unionize -- and raises for them and other nonunion personnel have been held up during the budget process each year. Devine does not argue that defenders are overpaid or unimportant, and neither do we.
Lawyers in the public guardian's office, who also aren't unionized, have a similar complaint. A Chicago Daily Law Bulletin review in August found that the median salary for a public defender is about $77,600, while the median for prosecutors is about $62,900. Public Guardian Robert Harris said the median for lawyers in his office is about $60,500 when you exclude his and a few other top salaries.
Devine offers two solutions. The first, which he says should happen immediately, is to start giving annual cost-of-living raises to nonunion county workers. That would cost about $40 million this year. Giving such raises just to his office would cost about $3.2 million. The second is to give prosecutors an additional bump in pay that would re-establish parity with the public defender's office. That would cost another $3.2 million.
Finding any extra money in Cook County's coffers won't be easy at a time when the projected shortfall is $500 million. But prosecutors and public guardians deserve to be treated fairly. They play an essential role in the war against crime and look out for the victims of crime and the welfare of society's most helpless citizens. Many of them could double their salary by working in the private sector. The county should do everything it can to retain them and pay them fairly.