Brain drain of prosecutors in Cook County.
Monday, July 02, 2007
by Dennis Byrne
From any reasonable point of view, there should be some balance between how much the public pays to
prosecute criminals and free the indigent innocent.
That's not the case in Cook County, where assistant state's attorneys are paid less than public
defenders. It's not because public defenders are paid too much; they earn every penny they make for the
important job of representing defendants who cannot afford counsel. Rather it's because when compared
with prosecutors in the nation's other large counties, assistant state's attorneys here are underpaid
Cook County assistant state's attorneys have disproportionately heavier caseloads than in other large
counties. Here they close more cases and have more statutory duties.
The disparities are causing more assistant state's attorneys, including some "first chairs" or lead
prosecutors, to leave for better paying jobs, while making the recruitment of new prosecutors more
difficult, Cook County State's Atty. Richard Devine said in an interview. "The balance in the criminal
justice system is vital. When you tilt it and higher pay goes for defense than for prosecution, then
we've got problems. We're seeing an accelerated rate of resignations; it isn't dramatic yet, but I
anticipate that we'll see a brain drain."
How it got this way is clouded in the arcane politics of the Cook County Board, where political
preservation and advancement seem to trump the public interest at nearly every turn.
*When the board passed the budget in February, the state's attorney's office lost 100 people (out of a
staff of about 800), including 44 prosecutors and 10 investigators. With about 540 lawyers, the public
defender's office is smaller, but it lost proportionately fewer lawyers than the state's attorney's
*The typical prosecutor's annual pay before then was about $63,000, compared with $73,000 for public
defenders. Since then, prosecutors received a raise that would bring them closer to "parity" with the
public defenders, but they still lag about 8 percent behind. This while the total number of active
felony cases per attorney is 50 in the public defender's office and 109 in the state's attorney's
*In Cook County, the prosecutor's office costs each citizen $23.07, which is in the low-end among
big-county annual costs and compares with Manhattan's $48.97 and San Diego County's $43.62. The average
caseload each prosecutor carries in Cook County is 600.17, among the nation's highest, which compares
with San Diego's 88.32. The average number of filings per prosecutor here is 533, also among the
highest, compared with San Diego's 150. The average number of cases closed per prosecutor here is 434
misdemeanor cases and 73 felony cases, also among the nation's highest, compared with San Diego's 32
misdemeanors and 46 felonies.
With the defections, declining staff, large workload and static salary, morale in the office is
"horrible," said state's attorney spokesman John Gorman. But morale could improve if the County Board,
at one of its two July meetings, approves a cost-of-living increase that would help catch them up. The
$8.7 million needed, Gorman said, could come from the county's "814 account," which is money set aside
for raises for county employees. Apparently how much is in the account is somewhat foggy, as Gorman
said, "we've heard figures from $37 million to $16 million." There may be enough votes to pass the
raise, but a veto by County Board President Todd Stroger would require a four-fifths vote of
commissioners to override, a virtual impossibility. The county's budget is heavy with red ink and
opponents of a raise for prosecutors easily could depict achieving parity between assistant state's
attorneys and public defenders as just another special interest pleading. Indeed, striking a balance
between all the needs competing for county money is a challenge for even the most dedicated County
Board and skillful County Board president, let alone for Stroger.
Yet, Devine sees salary parity as a high priority compared with other needs because an effective
criminal justice system requires balance between resources for the prosecution and the defense.
"Prosecutors can vote with their feet," he said, "and unless the County Board acts, we will have a loss
of talent that will seriously impact the prosecution of criminals in this county."