With no benefits and less pay than prosecutors, entry-level public defenders want a raise

on October 2, 2018

They have no health insurance. They work ten or 11-hour days. They have no free weekends.

No, they aren’t flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant. They are attorneys on the government’s payroll.

Public defenders, the lawyers hired by the county government to aid those who cannot afford legal representation, showed up at the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors meeting on September 11th to demand better pay and benefits. They are not only overworked, but at entry-level jobs, they do not have health insurance and are paid 20 percent less than government lawyers hired to prosecute crimes. The disparity in salary and benefits raises questions about fairness and justice.

Their labor contract is currently being re-negotiated and a member of the board of supervisors says it is trying correct the disparity. Last week, “the board of supervisors provided direction to have entry-level public defense attorneys and district attorneys be treated equally, for both salary and benefits,” said John Gioia, member of the board of supervisors in an interview. He said contract negotiations are underway, and no final resolution has been reached as yet.

It may seem unimportant to give adequate pay and benefits to lawyers representing lower-income people accused of misdemeanors, the crimes that carry the shortest sentences, like drug possession, public drinking, indecent exposure, petty theft or shoplifting. But the public defenders who represent the accused spoke passionately at the Sept. 11 meeting about why their work is so important. They represent some of the most vulnerable people in the country–people of color who cannot afford private counsel.

For these clients, getting convicted of a misdemeanor offense has serious long-term implications for employment and educational opportunities, noted Blanca Hernández, a public defender in Richmond. “By funding entry-level defense attorneys, you are protecting minorities from profiling,” she said in an interview.

During the public comment at the board of supervisors meeting, lawyer after lawyer talked about their personal struggles paying back student loans they had taken out for law school, and how they would not be able to pay them at their current salary levels. They spoke of their fears of not being able to afford retirement, and the unfairness of their first year of work not being included in the final retirement computation at the county.

All powerful public speakers, they described their main motivation in becoming public defenders as coming from their passion for ensuring justice in the criminal system to the most vulnerable people.

Standing at the podium at the meeting, Nicole Eiland, who has been a public defender for 12 years, recalled being an entry-level attorney defending a mentally ill person who was charged with not getting treatment for tuberculosis, known as TB.

“The day the case was called, I needed to counsel him,” she said. “No one in the room wanted to be there because he had active TB. As everyone left, I looked around and realized I was the only person without health insurance.”

The disparity in compensation for public defenders is ironic in Contra Costa County, which seems otherwise very progressive when it comes to criminal justice. In July, the public elected Diana Becton as district attorney, making her the first female African-American to hold the job in the county. From the beginning of her campaign, Becton declared as her goals reforming, “the broken bail system,” deprioritizing low-level offenses and pursuing alternatives to juvenile lockup.

And yet this same county pays entry-level prosecutors between $90,000 and $95,000, while starting public defenders earn about $70,000, according to the website Transparency California, a government watchdog group that publicly systematizes pay and pension databases in the state. Except at the entry level, the compensation of prosecutors and public defenders is similar.

Brandon Banks, president of the public defender’s union, said in interview that this, “systemic underfunding ultimately affects the defense” of the clients.

Lower wages and the lack of health insurance translates into a high rotation of lawyers, which ultimately affects the quality of the defense that their clients receive, the public defenders said.

“Dedicated and talented attorneys come in and leave after six months,” said Christy Pierce, who has been a public defender for 14 years. The sheer volume of cases that public defenders have to handle is overwhelming, they said.

With more than one 100 clients each, “young attorneys are overworked and underpaid,” said David Moakley, one of the younger members of the union. And the saddest part is that the people being defended are the most in need of help in every way.

“I defend the people that are consistently told that they are less,” said Naomi Holiday, one of the public defense lawyers, when it was her turn at the podium. “Parity is more than equal pay. It’s about a commitment to justice.”

But beyond the practical effects of underpaying public defenders, they argued, lie the philosophical implications of the pay disparity.

The difference in compensation implies, “discriminatory and racist policies because of the money allocated to put the marginalized and the people of color in jail, instead of keeping them out,” asserted Cheryl Sudduth, a steering committee member of the Racial Justice Coalition in the county, a group focusing on racial disparities within the criminal system.

Gioia responded in an interview that the county board of supervisors soon after the Sept. 11 hearing had recommended that the pay disparity be corrected. He said he felt confident that, “the practice of unequal pay for entry level public defense attorneys will end once the contract negotiations conclude.”

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