Mass exodus from prosecution field raises public safety concerns

Turnover rate nearing 20%

LA CROSSE, Wis. — An alarming number of prosecutors in Wisconsin are leaving their jobs, not long after starting.

The turnover rate for assistant district attorneys (ADA’s) is nearing 20% and is much higher than other public sector jobs.

That’s according to a recent study published by Dennis Dresang, a professor at UW-Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs.

Some say the dwindling experience of prosecutors is creating a public safety risk.

“I think our crime victims in the state of Wisconsin deserve better,” said Dan Cary, Monroe County’s District Attorney since 2003.

The study found that those who decided to leave the profession cited compensation as the number one reason. Not only is the pay not comparable to the private sector, the ADA’s surveyed complained that the system does not recognize experience or job performance.

The state stopped funding a pay progression scale for ADA’s in 2002.


La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke says retaining good ADA’s is becoming increasingly difficult.

“You used to tell people you’re not going get rich doing this but you’ll have steady work and there will be a (pay) increase as you go through your career, but that’s no longer true,” said Gruenke.

Cary says there’s no question the turnover rate is a public safety concern. He points to the diminishing experience of ADA’s.

“While they may be zealous advocates and work very hard, they don’t necessarily have the judgment that comes with experience and how to determine what a good resolution is for a type of case,” said Cary.

“It takes time to develop that instinct,” he added.

The study found that the turnover rate for ADA’s has been increasing for the last two decades.

It was 15.6% in 1990, 17.2% in 2000 and 18.4% in 2005. Those were the latest available numbers but Dresang thinks the turnover rate could already be more than 20%.

Compare that to other public sector jobs that average a turnover rate between 5 – 7%.

“We’re going to have to pay. It’s one of those things of being penny wise and pound foolish,” said Dresang.

“You pay in the long-term for not having public safety and having a lot of mistakes,” he added.

The other concern is an increasingly high work load.

La Crosse County’s 8 prosecutors handled 4,561 referrals in 2011. That’s about 570 cases per prosecutor or about 11 new cases each week.

The problem is even worse in Monroe County. 3 Prosecutors handled 2,554 referrals in 2011. That’s about 851 cases per prosecutor or about 16 new cases each week.

That can make it hard to catch up when new cases are constantly coming in

“Without plea bargaining, our system would be crushed,” said Cary.

“There’s no way every case that is filed could be litigated through a jury trial. So, along the way, there are compromises that are made,” he added.

Assistant district attorneys are all salaried through the State Prosecutors Office. That means no over-time despite routinely working 50 – 60 hours each week.

“What some people might not realize, prosecutors are working in the middle of the night getting search warrants, getting calls from police officers for questions, working on weekends just trying to get ready for the next week,” said Gruenke.

The reality is that many of the prosecutors are leaving for better paying private jobs that come with a lighter workload.

Gruenke says it’s leading to a talent drain in prosecutors’ offices.

“It doesn’t really surprise me because right now, there doesn’t seem to be any hope on the horizon,” he said.

“It looks like there’s not going to be many opportunities for advancement or for pay raises and most people are looking for jobs where they can advance as they go through their career.”

Tune in to News 8 at 10 on Tuesday and Wednesday’s for more on Lou Hillman’s special report: “The Revolving Door.”