Baltimore prosecutors are quitting at the fastest rate in recent memory, as low salaries and high stress take their toll on the morale of an agency that for years has been criticized as a weak link in the city's criminal justice system.
Lawyers and judges say the result is a revolving door that undermines the office's effectiveness in bringing cases before juries.
"The ability of a prosecutor is directly proportional to the kind of justice you get in the courtroom," said Salvatore Fili, chief of the drug unit, who left two weeks ago after 20 years there. "Some young attorneys get their brains bashed in by judges."
Baltimore prosecutors are the busiest in Maryland, handling more than one-third of the state's criminal cases.
About 60 percent of the 215 lawyers in the Baltimore state's attorney's office have five years' experience or less. Since 2003, 46 prosecutors have left, including 20 who had been there for five or more years.
In the past three months, a dozen people have announced that they're leaving, including two division chiefs and the agency's top trial lawyer, Sharon A.H. May, who is switching to the public defender's office.
State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy says she cannot remember a time when so many prosecutors were leaving, and that low salaries compounded by the stress of working in the state's busiest criminal justice system contribute to the turnover.
Entry-level lawyers in her office earn $37,700. Beginning prosecutors are paid $53,100 in Howard County, $51,577 in Montgomery County and $41,000 in Prince George's County. In Philadelphia, starting prosecutors [See Quit, 7a] [Quit, from Page 1a] earn $44,823; and in Dallas, $43,222.
Entry-level counterparts in the Baltimore public defender's office are paid $49,157. The city's public defenders received a $7,000 raise last week, to bring them closer to the $52,500 starting salaries in the state attorney general's office.
Jessamy calls the pay disparity "chilling."
The differences can be attributed to funding sources: The state is completely responsible for the budgets of the offices of the public defender and attorney general, while the costs of the prosecutor's office are shared by the city and state.
City officials recently agreed to give Jessamy's office $1.5 million for salary increases, which will be effective in January, and put entry-level prosecutors almost on par financially with public defenders. It was the first substantial raise since Jessamy took office in 1995 - but only half the $4 million she had requested, leaving her unable to give much to the office's veteran prosecutors.
"When you cannot recruit and retain good people, you become the public employer of last resort," Jessamy said. "It becomes a place for people who can't find a job anyplace else. We don't want that."
Mayor Martin O'Malley - who has frequently feuded with Jessamy - declined through a spokeswoman to discuss the effects of novice prosecutors on the city's criminal justice system.
But the spokeswoman, Raquel Guillory, noted that funding for the state's attorney's office increases each year, and comes from both the city and state. "We don't set the pay scale in that office," Guillory said.
Judge John M. Glynn, who oversees the city's criminal docket, said he's noticed that younger prosecutors will challenge him less, even when they should be speaking up to make their point.
"If they roll over, they get rolled over," Glynn said.
He said he's "often taken aback" at how quickly prosecutors go from handling cases involving misdemeanors to much more serious cases.
"The state's attorney's office has people who are very good, but they just don't have enough of them," Glynn said. "Younger lawyers tend to shrink into the background."
Glynn recalled a recent armed robbery trial involving an inexperienced prosecutor with a strong case facing an aggressive public defender. During closing arguments, the defense lawyer made a "blatant racial appeal" to the jury, Glynn said.
"The prosecutor clearly should have stood up and responded," Glynn said. In the judge's view, some jurors bought the defense argument. With the jury deadlocked, Glynn declared a mistrial.
Jessamy said she knows the problems that come with novice trial lawyers, and is trying to ensure that office expertise is passed along.
For example, a top-level prosecutor leaving this summer, Jill J. Myers, will be flown back for occasional visits to help junior lawyers learn more about cases involving wiretapping. Myers says she will not be earning more money in her new job as a professor. But the cost of living is lower in McComb, Ill., and she wants to teach full time.
In the case of most of the recent departures, Jessamy says that had the city given her the money she sought, she would have been able to offer raises to her office's more experienced employees.
A division chief in Baltimore starts at $78,500, while the same position in Howard County pays $101,504. A Montgomery County division chief receives $113,748.
Reasons for leaving
Sharon May, the city's only "special prosecutor," is leaving this month after 20 years. May was Jessamy's deputy for eight years, then was transferred last summer back to the courtroom, where she now handles major cases such as the killing of three immigrant children in Northwest Baltimore two months ago.
May said she's retiring, though she starts at the public defender's office this summer as a felony trial lawyer.
"This is an opportunity to continue to do what I like to do and get paid well for it," said May, who will collect a pension from the prosecutor's office in addition to her salary.
Another former top prosecutor, Fili, said that had Jessamy's $4 million request been granted, he would have received a substantial raise and probably would have stayed as head of the drug unit.
"What they have approved is paltry and inadequate," said Fili. He and his wife, also a city prosecutor, have 11-year-old triplets. He started last week as a prosecutor in Harford County. With his pension and Harford salary, he'll make $20,000 more a year.
Fili leaves behind a unit in which prosecutors' caseloads are regularly three times the national average. Each of his prosecutors handled about 375 cases a year. At the beginning of 2004, the job turnover rate in his department was more than 40 percent over about five months.
Fili said the unit's conviction rate is about 91 percent, but he doesn't know if it will stay that way.
"The office is going south in a hurry," he said, referring to the rapid turnover. "It is attributable to the fact that the remuneration is inadequate."
Many of the departing lawyers have children, a key factor in their decisions to find higher-paying jobs.
Adam Rosenberg, a veteran sex crimes prosecutor who begins a job at a Baltimore medical malpractice firm this week, was in the state's attorney's office for seven years, handling some of its most complicated sex cases. He said he understood that the only way to get a raise was to become a division chief, which would have taken him out of the courtroom, because division chiefs don't typically try cases.
The pay problem was magnified by the daily hassles of working as a prosecutor in a busy city courthouse.
"If you paid me $100,000 a year, I could deal with a judge coming in an hour and a half late for an arraignment docket," Rosenberg said.
Another prosecutor who recently left the office, Roger L. Harris, said he struck out on his own to practice as a defense lawyer mostly because of the money issue.
"But there are a couple of other reasons, too," said Harris, who handled shooting cases for much of his time. "You get burned out. For what you get, it's not really worth what you go through."
Former homicide prosecutor Frank Rangoussis, now a lawyer for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in Washington, said he left after his wife became pregnant with their third child.
"Being a prosecutor is a very thankless job. You don't get a lot of respect from the community. That's just the culture in the city," Rangoussis said. "People are so used to bashing the state's attorney's office and looking at the office as the reason for every community problem. But crime is the manifestation of other problems in the city. Crime is what happens later."