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The Miami Herald
November 5, 2006 Sunday

Counsel turnover takes toll;
Florida’s assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders are leaving their jobs for higher-paying positions, causing a brain drain in the criminal justice system.

BYLINE: NATALIE P. McNEAL

Florida's prosecutors and public defenders are leaving their jobs at record rates for careers with better pay.

As a result of the high turnover, cases are lagging, witness memories are fading and far too many attorneys are inexperienced, public officials say.

''It's a crisis in the courtroom,'' Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said. ``When we lose our lawyers, the cases in the courtrooms slow down, and the victims suffer.''

In Miami-Dade, the assistant state attorneys turnover rate is 24.35 percent, and the Miami-Dade's public defender has 19.54 percent turnover.

In Broward County, the assistant state attorneys turnover rate is 19.39 percent, up from 14.75 percent just five years ago.

''It's the worst that it has been, and it continues to get worse,'' said Rick Parker, president of the Florida Public Defender Association, Inc.

''The quality of lawyering is being significantly diminished,'' said Broward's Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office lost nearly a third of its staff -- 32.91 percent -- last year. ``We can't keep lawyers long enough so they become competent enough for people to get the benefit of their tax dollars.''

Broward Chief Judge Dale Ross says he sees it in the courtrooms: A young, bright prosecutor with limited experience going up against a criminal defense attorney with 20 or 25 years of experience.

''If you were the victim, wouldn't you want a state attorney with the same experience as the defense?'' Ross said. 'As a judge, I can't tell the prosector, `You forgot to ask the follow-up question.' ''

Prosecutors and public defenders say they love the job -- but they just can't afford to do it. In Rundle's office, starting pay is just over $39,000. In Broward, the assistant state attorneys start at $40,000.

Those starting salaries do very little for attorneys saddled with five-figure student loan debt struggling to live in South Florida's expensive housing market.

Just ask Gregory Schwendeman, who left Miami-Dade state attorney's office in June after almost five years.

''It was the hardest decision for me to make,'' Schwendeman, 41, said. ``I loved my job but the salary was not family-friendly. It's anti-family.''

Schwendeman, a graduate of University of Miami Law, was earning $46,000 a year by the time he left, but he lived with a wife and a baby in a one-bedroom condo he owned in Hallandale Beach. With $136,000 in student loans, it became a struggle to make ends meet.

Because state attorneys only get paid once a month, sometimes he'd have to call in sick at the end of the month because he had to choose between baby food or gas to drive to work, he said.

''A prosecutor in this country should never have to take a sick day because they don't have gas money for the car,'' said Schwendeman, who moved his family to Melbourne and launched his own practice.

Broward State Attorney Mike Satz agrees the turnover is taking a toll.

''It's frustrating because when the person finally becomes a really productive asset, you lose them,'' Satz said.

Victims develop a trust and confidence with the prosecutor handling their case. But every time another prosecutor comes in, the victim must start all over.

And the longer a case sits on the shelf, shifting from prosecutor to prosecutor, the better it is for the defense, Satz said.

''Memories lapse. Witnesses, especially in South Florida, move on,'' Satz said.

In the Broward felony division, 31 out of 38 attorneys were new to the division this year. A third of the unit has been there three months or less.

'It's not unusual to have a victim call up to me and complain about `Where did my prosecutor go?' '' said Jeff Marcus, Broward's chief of felonies. ``Victims are not happy about the turnover and the level of experience of these attorneys.''

In an attempt to retain lawyers, the Broward and Miami-Dade state attorney offices require prosecutors to stay at least three years or risk not getting a reference. Sometimes Satz can offer certain attorneys $4,000 extra to stay on for the fourth year, but that depends on Legislature funding.

But the potential perks are not enough.

Christopher Palamara, 29, left the Broward state attorney's office in June after five years. He didn't have student loans.

But he decided to work in private practice doing healthcare law and civil litigation, where his income increased 20 percent, up from $53,000.

Palamara said he loved working at the courthouse because he felt like he was doing a public service. But he needed more money and he started feeling under-appreciated by the system.

''The judges felt frustrated because they always had to deal with new prosecutors,'' Palamara said. ``I was doing four jobs at once because of all the people who left. It was like we had to plug all the holes in the dam.''

To combat the turnover, Florida's 20 state attorneys are pushing for a starting salary of $50,000 for their lawyers. Two South Florida legislators are sponsoring a loan-forgiveness bill next session for assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders that would pay up to $44,000 of their loans, depending on how long they remain on the job. But some version of that bill has been proposed and withered at least four other times.

Some lawmakers are wary that the loan payments wouldn't be fair to those who worked during law school so they wouldn't be saddled with so much debt.

The bill's sponsor said it's a matter of survival.

''If you graduate from law school with $100,000 or more in loans, it's very difficult to live in South Florida and make ends meet doing this work,'' said state Rep. Ari Porth of Coral Springs, a Broward assistant state attorney who is sponsoring the loan bill with Sen. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres.

Maryland has had loan payback programs for its public workers since 1988. The state gives money to pay the loans of some government attorneys, provided that they earn less than $60,000 a year. It's been a great recruitment and retention tool.

''It's designed to attract qualified individuals, especially those where there are critical manpower shortages,'' said Marie Janiszewski, a program manager with the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Armando Hernandez, 35, left in September from the Miami-Dade state attorney's office, on the exact day his three-year contract was up.

A rising star in the office, Hernandez is a former corporate pilot who successfully prosecuted the America West pilots who boarded an airplane drunk in 2002.

''If they paid $80-85,000 a year, people may stay,'' Hernandez said. He has started his own practice with a partner in Miami.

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