ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. — State attorney and public defender's offices are teaming up to demand pay raises for their assistant attorneys.
They claim that starting pay is no longer livable, causing record turnover and a lack of applicants in each office.
"This is the worst crisis ever in the criminal justice system,"
Nineteenth Judicial Circuit Court public defender Diamond Litty and State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl said they are facing a critical staffing crisis like their counterparts across the state.
It has them putting their courtroom rivalry to the side to send a unified message to state legislators that they need to increase base salaries for assistant attorneys in both offices.
"What you're seeing is unprecedented. Never before have both agencies come before as a group to say we are in crisis," Litty said.
Starting pay for assistant attorneys, they say, is becoming unlivable and causing high turnover and a lack of new applicants.
"This is the worst crisis ever in the criminal justice system," Litty said.
"There's an absolute dearth of applications. That's probably the most disconcerting, terrorizing part of the entire process," Bakkedahl said.
In their respective offices, Bakkedahl said he is down nine attorneys. Litty is down seven.
That means caseloads for the attorneys that remain are increasing to unsustainable levels.
Bakkedahl said he used to consider a caseload of 200 to be high. Now, he says some attorneys are looking at caseloads of 350.
Public defenders and state attorneys around the state are asking legislators to implement a $10,000 raise for their employees this year, hoping that will curb turnover and encourage more applicants.
"They cannot afford to work for us," Litty said.
Applicants can receive much higher salaries in the private sector.
Currently, the starting pay for assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders is $50,000, among the lowest in the nation. Litty also said most new attorneys face student debt of more than $150,000.
"They have to be able to put food on the table, and at this point with inflation and low wages, they can't do that," Litty said.
A $60,000 base pay, Bakkedahl said, could help.
"We’ve got to start somewhere. …That might bring in a few more resumes, so that's a very, very good first step. No doubt about it," Bakkedahl said.
The latest budget proposals in Tallahassee did not include the $10,000 raise, which is why Litty and Bakkedahl are making a public plea for support with just days left for legislators to make budget changes.
They worry the caseload burdens on their current attorneys will jeopardize the quality of representation they can provide to clients.
Bakkedahl said case backlogs are already mounting.
"If you don't have lawyers in that courtroom to move cases, this system will crash, and we are literally at critical mass. This is not hyperbole," Bakkedahl said. "We are the canaries in the coal mine."
Litty also fears the backlog could cause more overcrowding in jails, and worse, innocent people and victims of crime could face a delay in justice.
"They’re innocent. They want their day in court, and they can't get it because we're backlogged," Litty said.
"Justice delayed, justice denied. That's an absolute truism, and that's actively in play as we sit here today," Bakkedahl said.
Bakkedahl also fears there is a public safety impact.
"If we're moving people out of the jail because we can't prosecute them, and we're releasing them because they're entitled to be released as a result of us not getting to their case, that's going to impact the crime rate," Bakkedahl said. "That's going to have a direct impact on the perception of the state of Florida."
In comparison, even with the $10,000 raise, Bakkedahl said assistant state attorneys and public defenders in Florida would still be paid well below the national average of $68,000.