More Money, More Attorneys 

Legislation may increase district attorney salaries and positions.

Entry-level assistant district attorneys in Tennessee are doing more work for less money. They earn $7,206 less than the national average, and most state district attorney's offices are seriously understaffed, which means average caseloads for assistants are also higher than the national average.

But pending legislation may bring the state up to par.

Assistant district attorneys handle every type of case that comes through the Office of the District Attorney (D.A.), from DUIs and vandalism to rape and first-degree murder, yet entry-level jobs here pay $31,044 compared to the national average of $38,250. That salary is also significantly less than other government attorney positions, such as those with the Shelby County Public Defender's Office or the U.S. Attorney's Office, where an entry-level assistant public defender can earn as much as $43,260 annually. New attorneys also can earn significantly more if they enter private practice.

According to Jennifer Donnals, public relations director for the Shelby County D.A.'s office, one entry-level attorney in Memphis has to supplement his income by working as a waiter at a local steakhouse.

If passed, the legislation would bring the Tennessee entry-level salary up to $38,124. The higher income would attract more law school graduates into assistant district attorney jobs, according to Elizabeth Rice, district attorney general for Fayette, Tipton, Hardeman, McNairy, and Lauderdale counties.

"It's hard to attract new assistant D.A.'s because they can get more money elsewhere," said Rice. "There are some who really want to be prosecutors, and they come and stay for a year or two, but when they can't make it on that salary, they move on. ... You're in a constant process of training new people and that's not good for the prosecution of cases. You need experienced people who know what they're doing."

Wally Kirby, executive director of the state District Attorney's Conference, says one possible source for the salary increase would be money from the Indigent Defense Fund, which pays for expert witnesses for low-income defendants. He says the fund has increased by 300 percent in the past 10 years and currently contains in excess of $17 million.

"It would leave less money available for expert witnesses, but we feel like some of those aren't necessary witnesses," said Kirby.

Another pending bill would create more assistant district attorney positions in the state D.A. offices and lighten their caseloads. In Shelby County, the average caseload per assistant district attorney is 1,076, while in Bronx County, New York, the average caseload is just 181 per assistant D.A. If passed, the bill would create about 40 new positions. Nine of those would be in Shelby County.

Donnals says those extra positions would certainly help, but a 1999 study conducted by the state comptroller's office shows a need for 142 new assistant district attorneys in the state -- 30 of them in Shelby County alone.

Both bills are currently in committee in the House and Senate, and according to Donnals, the D.A.'s office is expecting them to pass before the session ends in June. They have currently been passed "behind the budget," which means amendments must be made to the budget before the bills can be funded.

E-mail: bphillips@memphisflyer.com

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