Pay progression scale proposed to stop high ADA turnover

1 in 5 prosecutors leaving each year

LA CROSSE. Wis. — As defense attorney Luis Delgado looks over his schedule, he’s reminded that he has much more flexibility now than when he was a prosecutor.

“I have a 2 p.m. (appointment) and a 2:30, and then I get to pick-up my kid at 3:10,” says Delgado, as a smile crosses his face.

He spent more than 7 years as an assistant district attorney (ADA), first in Portage County and then in Vernon County. Delgado says he entered the field with a desire to help others.

“You want to do good for the community and you want to do good for the victim,” he said.

Delgado, however, says he was handling more than 400 cases a year which significantly cut into the time he could spend with his family.

“If you have a trial, you’re working all weekend long and foregoing family trips, family functions, family activities,” he explained.

So, in 2002, Delgado decided enough was enough and opened up his own law firm in La Crosse.

“I pulled the pin and hung up my own shingle and haven’t looked back since,” he said.

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Not only did it afford Delgado more flexibility, he’s also making more money and handling about 1/3 of the cases he did before.

He’s not alone in his decision to leave the prosecution field.

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

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%.

“Turnover is not good for any business. You lose all the training you put into the person, the expertise, the experience and change the dynamic of the office,” said La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke.

Gruenke would like to see the state re-institute the pay progression scale for ADA’s. It was ended in 2002 because of state budget constraints.

“There should be some way they can reasonably expect to get from the entrance level salary through the range to the top of the field,” said Monroe County District Attorney Dan Cary.

Cary thinks a pay scale would give lawyers incentive to stay in the prosecution field.

It’s an idea that was recommended in Dresang’s study and has since been proposed in legislation by State Rep. Michelle Litjens (R-Oshkosh).

Her bill proposes 17 steps, based on the performance of the prosecutor.

Currently, assistant district attorneys have little to no opportunity to move up in pay. Critics of the system point to the fact that the median salary of ADA’s last year ($56,150) was not much higher than the state-wide starting salary ($49,429).

Dresang thinks there should also be different pay scales for different regions.

“There are areas of the state that cost people more to live and where the market for attorneys is more competitive,” said Dresang.

“So, instead of paying all assistant district attorneys on a state basis, allow for some local differentials,” he added.

On top of all this, most district attorneys will tell you their departments are already understaffed.

“I’ve just gotten used to these claims falling on deaf ears,” said Gruenke. “So we’re just trying to do the best we can locally and not really hold out much hope.”

All of these things factor in to why fewer and fewer attorneys are looking at the prosecution field as a career.

“I’m not inside the courthouse 9 hours a day. I’m not at the beck and call of law enforcement,” said Delgado, who has been in private practice now for a decade.

Still, some do decide to stay.

“You stay because you believe in what you do. You stay because it’s a calling,” said Cary.

But they say there’s always the opportunity and temptation to leave.