Byron Warren can’t find enough hours in the day. Not when he’s responsible for prosecuting 120 felony cases in Baltimore.
The assistant state’s attorney works evenings and weekends to keep up with motions, trial preparation and witness interviews. That’s not counting his days in the courtroom. The 33-year-old feels like he’s back in college and going through the wringer to join a fraternity.
“It feels like a pledge process that never ends,” he said. “It means no work-life balance.”
Resignations at the office of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby have left prosecutors such as Warren with crushing caseloads. The number of assistant state’s attorneys — the people who prosecute crimes in the city — has declined 24% over the past three years from 217 to 164, according to the office.
They’re walking out for private practice or the suburbs, where they have lighter workloads and a chance for higher pay. Stress and the demands of the job have always brought turnover, but the coronavirus pandemic worsened matters. The courts reopened after 18 months with a backlog of thousands of felony cases.
The quitting mirrors national trends of a post-pandemic exodus of office workers that economists are calling “The Great Resignation.” Departures are weakening prosecutors’ offices around the county. District attorneys report that their ranks have fallen by as much as a third, said David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
“We are reaching a crisis,” LaBahn said. “For somebody to have 120 active felonies, that is a crushing caseload. If that individual were to try those 120 cases, how many years would that take? That person is working in triage.”
In Baltimore, the resignations don’t go unnoticed. Everett Washington, 51, of the Brooklyn neighborhood in South Baltimore, was scheduled to stand trial Wednesday on first-degree assault and a weapon charge. But the assistant state’s attorney on the case, Shannon Price, resigned Oct. 12. The case was transferred to prosecutor Daniel Bowers, but he resigned Oct. 18, according to court records.
Washington’s trial had to be postponed to February. His attorney would not comment.
The office has maintained the ranks of its homicide unit with 22 people, compared with 24 in 2018, according to its statistics. But turnover results in younger prosecutors with less experience trying the city’s most serious cases. The Special Victims Unit in Baltimore, in which prosecutors handle emotionally taxing cases, lost three of its 15 prosecutors in 2019.
City offices such as public works, police and fire are grappling with vacancies, too. Baltimore’s fire department has 100 vacant jobs for firefighters, EMTs and paramedics, a spokeswoman said. That’s about 13% of its workforce.
Mosby and her deputies are trying to stem the tide by boosting salaries by a total of nearly $600,000 and encouraging prosecutors to work from home two days a week. Mosby negotiated $92,000 of that money from City Hall. She plans to cut vacant jobs at the District Courts to come up with the remaining $500,000.
“We’re hoping all of these things, in combination, will address some of the concerns that our people have about the work they do, the volume of the work, the pay and the conditions — which are a challenge,” said Michael Schatzow, her longtime chief deputy.
The retention plan was developed by Schatzow, who retired this month at age 72, concluding an accomplished career that reached from the public defender’s office to that of the prosecutor, from the federal to state courts, and includes two decades at the firm Venable LLP.
Schatzow successfully argued against the death penalty for the murderous drug lord Donald Ferebee in the 1990s. Decades later, he unsuccessfully tried the cops charged in the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered while in police custody. He’s retiring to spend more time with his grandchildren, he said.
With his final professional task, Schatzow wants to leave behind a workplace that’s more accommodating to prosecutors in Baltimore.
“If they can go somewhere where the volume isn’t as high, where the pressure from the court isn’t as great, and where they can make more money — it’s hard to tell people they shouldn’t do that,” he said.
City prosecutors handle higher caseloads and, at times, make less money than their counterparts in the counties. In a city with more than 300 killings a year, a Baltimore homicide prosecutor handles 20 to 25 active cases. He or she may take half of those cases to trial each year. It’s the most demanding, high-stakes work in the office.
“We have people who are scheduled for homicide trials back to back to back. These are very serious cases: lots of stress, lots of emotion, lots of pressure,” Schatzow said. “We would like our people to have at least a week in between trials; they frequently don’t.”
Counties with fewer killings, such as Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard, don’t staff homicide units. They instead assign the cases to veteran prosecutors from units such as major crimes or special victims. A county prosecutor may handle three or four murder cases a year — not two dozen like a city prosecutor.
The workload makes Baltimore’s homicide prosecutors the most experienced in Maryland. They’re lured away by the county offices, the attorney general, even the U.S. attorney, particularly considering that salaries in Baltimore don’t compensate for the extra work. An assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore makes $74,000 to $120,000.
In Howard County, the same job pays $70,000 to $128,000. Baltimore County pays from $62,500 to about $118,000. Anne Arundel pays about $62,000 to $163,000. Harford pays $54,000 to $140,000. The state attorney general’s office pays $70,000 to $113,000.
An analysis by the Baltimore Department of Human Resources found more than a half-million dollars is needed to make salaries competitive in the city state’s attorney’s office, Mosby said.
Mosby said she’s bound by city regulations that cap raises at 5%. That means an assistant state’s attorney hired years ago, even with an occasional raise, may earn less money than someone hired today at a higher salary. She said the additional $600,000 will bring balance to salaries by boosting pay for the longest-serving prosecutors and those handling the most serious cases.
Defense attorney Roya Hanna announced that she will challenge Mosby in the June Democratic primary election and she’s sought to make attrition a campaign issue. Hanna said she’s counted 40 people who resigned since May from the office. None contacted by The Baltimore Sun would comment.
The office has faced challenges during the pandemic, “like any major employer in the city and across the country,” said its spokeswoman, Zy Richardson.
“Coming out of the pandemic, we have been working hard to fill vacancies, and are providing salary increases for staff, as well as taking immediate steps to mitigate the unprecedented caseloads after the courts were closed for 18 months,” she said.
“We firmly believe that we have the most talented and passionate prosecutors in the country, who have been and will continue to be highly sought after by neighboring jurisdictions and options outside of public service. None of these obstacles will prevent us from continuing to serve the people of Baltimore.”
Baltimore’s prosecutors routinely try murder cases without a “second chair,” often a less-experienced prosecutor who helps the lead attorney in court. Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Stock represented the office solo in winning the conviction of Malik Samartaney last month for murdering and dismembering his daughter.
LaBahn, from the prosecuting attorney’s association, encourages offices to staff murder trials with second chairs, even third chairs, so new attorneys can cut their teeth in the courtroom. He’s pursuing federal grant money to open “trial schools” and partner with state prosecutors’ associations to train less-seasoned lawyers.
He worries resignations across the country will bring losses in courtrooms. Because of the “double jeopardy” principle, homicide prosecutors don’t get second chances.
“If somebody obviously guilty gets off,” he said, “what does that do for the trust and legitimacy of the criminal justice system?”