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High costs and high turnover: Miami-Dade state attorney and PD seek solutions

High costs and high turnover: Miami-Dade state attorney and PD seek solutions

High costs and high turnover: Miami-Dade state attorney and PD seek solutions

High costs and high turnover: Miami-Dade state attorney and PD seek solutions

Katherine Fernandez Rundle

Katherine Fernandez Rundle

Miami-Dade’s veteran state attorney and public defender both say the latest round of state pay raises, 3%, won’t stop a troubling exodus of front-line prosecutors and public defenders.

Both elected officials point to Miami’s ranking, for a second year straight, as the nation’s most expensive housing market, and a 7.4% inflation rate that outpaces the rest of Florida.

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle says two years of pay raises didn’t stop 156 prosecutors – the equivalent of a large Miami law firm — from leaving her office in the past 24 months.

She projects a 35% vacancy rate by summer and worries about Miami’s ability to maintain a five-year, 16% decline in homicides.

“A lot of the strategies we have been putting in place over the last decade are working, but we’re at a tipping point. At some point, the whole dam is going to break.”

The vacancies have allowed her to boost starting pay from $60,000 to $68,000 for her remaining attorneys, but that’s a band aid, Rundle says.

“Obviously, I can’t sustain that because I need to fill the positions.”

It still leaves beginning lawyers, who carry on average of $160,000 in student debt, priced out of a housing market where one-bedroom apartments cost $2,750-$3,000 a month.

Many prosecutors are taking jobs with municipal governments, Rundle says.

It makes sense, she says, when the lowest paid attorney in the Miami-Dade County attorney’s office earns $152,000 a year, Rundle says.

“We gave up a long time ago competing with private law firms,” she said.

The losses  have resulted in felony division chiefs managing 40 homicide cases while supervising three attorneys and their combined 400-600 felony cases, Rundle says.

Victims pay the price when they are forced to recount a deeply traumatic event to each new attorney who inherits their case, Rundle said.

“I have a woman whose daughter was killed, and she said to me, ‘I like your office, I like you Mrs. Rundle, but can you tell me why it’s taking seven years and seven lawyers to take care of my daughter’s case?” Many give up in frustration, and the case falls apart, Rundle said.

Carlos Martinez

Carlos Martinez

Rundle wants the Legislature to raise starting salaries and authorize a “locality pay differential,” equal to the 25% pay differential federal agencies offer lawyers who serve in Florida’s Southern District.

“So, I lose a lot of my lawyers to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, because they’re still going to be a prosecutor, and they’re going to get a salary increase, and on top of that, they’re going to get 25%,” Rundle said. “I just lost seven attorneys to Homeland Security.”

Rundle and Martinez say Florida taxpayers are footing the bill to train beginning lawyers without benefiting from their experience.

Martinez says his office is still losing 29 lawyers a year, as it has for the past two years. He expects his vacancy rate to nearly match Rundle’s — between 24% and 25%.

Half the lawyers Martinez hired two years ago are already gone.

“They’re leaving a lot earlier than ever before,” he said. “It’s not sustainable.”

As caseloads climb for the remaining attorneys, so will the risk of burnout, Martinez said.

“The average caseload of my misdemeanor attorneys is way too high; it is more than 200 cases per attorney,” he said. “And the average caseload for the felony attorney, at the lower level of felony cases, is about 90 cases per attorney. That is too high.”

As president of the Florida Public Defender Association, Martinez traveled to Tallahassee last year to thank lawmakers for a 5% pay raise and incentives of up to $10,000 that were approved the year before. But he told a House spending subcommittee that the Legislature needs to increase his office’s starting pay from $68,000 to $75,000 to avert a looming “crisis.”

Meanwhile, Martinez is wringing every efficiency he can out of existing resources.

Last summer, Martinez became the first public defender’s office in the nation to employ generative AI for legal research and case preparation.

“I feel like adding AI, and adding additional support for the lawyers, is at least showing them that we care about the work that they do, and we care about their wellbeing,” Martinez said.

Before that, Martinez petitioned the Supreme Court for a rule change that would authorize an expanded supervised practice program.

That would allow all law school graduates, not just those in a law school program, to work in his office, under the supervision of a lawyer, for up to a year while they await Bar admission. Prosecutors and legal aid organizations would benefit as well, Martinez said.

The Supreme Court, on its own motion, expanded a law school practice program two weeks ago to encourage more pro bono service.

Martinez says his petition remains pending, and he remains hopeful.

“That’s a long-term solution,” he said.

He is planning to return to Tallahassee to plead his case again to the governor and the Legislature.

Despite the challenges, Martinez considers himself optimistic.

“I’m always looking at, OK, what is it that we can accomplish, and then push that goal a little further and look at other opportunities that we have.”

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Law - City News Miami originally published at Law - City News Miami