Saturday, November 29, 2008
Public lawyers' salary gap grows wider
The Wichita Eagle
Steve Osburn is chief of the Sedgwick County public defenders -- the
attorneys who represent people charged with crimes but who can't
afford to hire lawyers.
As head of the Wichita office, Osburn is the
second-highest paid public defender in Kansas. But his $77,000
salary would rank Osburn 14th if he worked at the Sedgwick County
District Attorneys' office.
Discrepancies in compensation between public
defenders and prosecutors go beyond their paychecks. It also affects
access to legal training that could give prosecutors an advantage in
Both offices vigorously defend the talents of
their attorneys. They say they do their jobs as much out of
dedication as for money.
"Justice shouldn't be for sale, and I believe most
of the people who come to work for our office believe that," Osburn
Still, prosecutors who press felony charges in
Wichita make about $20,000 more a year than the court-appointed
lawyers across the aisle.
Prosecutors working for District Attorney Nola
Foulston make a median salary of $64,000 a year, according to the
most recent numbers available. Foulston makes nearly $136,000.
Public defenders, meanwhile, make a median salary
of little more than $44,000 a year.
That salary is so low that one Wichita public
defender, German-born Klaus Dieter Mueller,nearly had his visa
revoked because U.S. immigration officials considered him
"underemployed" because of his pay.
The State Board of Indigents' Defense Services
received little more than half of the funds it requested for pay
raises this year.
"We're a necessary evil in the state budget,"
Osburn said. "We only exist because the courts say they have to have
That edict came from the U.S. Supreme Court, which
45 years ago ruled in favor of a drifter named Clarence Earl Gideon
who was too poor to hire a lawyer to defend him against theft
charges in Florida. The decision in Gideon v. Wainwright guaranteed
everyone charged with a crime the right to a lawyer.
"No one ever considers the rights of the
defendant, until it's you or yours charged with the crime," Osburn
Growing salary gap
There are 22 attorneys in the Sedgwick County
Regional Public Defender's office, handling 4,342 cases this year,
according to theBoard of Indigents' Defense Services.
The caseload has increased each year, from 3,866
three years ago.
That's about 197 cases for each attorney to handle
in a year.
And the salary gap has grown with the caseload.
In 2003, the last time The Eagle examined salaries
of public attorneys in Sedgwick County District Court, prosecutors
made 28 percent more than public defenders.
Now the difference is 33 percent.
The District Attorney's office has more than twice
as many attorneys on staff as the public defender's office.
But they handle more kinds of cases than public
defenders, who usually represent defendants in felony cases and
"The district attorney's office has a much broader
scope than the public defender's office does," said Chief Deputy
District Attorney Kim Parker.
Parker said the office handles consumer and
juvenile issues. And its felony trial lawyers must give detailed
review to police investigations before charges are filed, which adds
to their workload.
"At the district attorney's office, we have to
respond to all state agencies, including agencies like the health
department," Parker said. "If we get a report someone has
tuberculosis we have a responsibility to make sure they're not
running around infecting people."
Assistant district attorneys are assigned to the
traffic division to prosecute cases and other areas.
Parker also pointed out that neither office of the
district court can match the salaries at City Hall. The City of
Wichita law office has 17 attorneys who average more than $84,000 a
"And we both lose out when it comes to attorneys
in private practice," Parker said.
The mid-level annual salary for a Kansas lawyer is
$87,550, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Reports from the University of Kansas and Washburn
law schools say graduates can expect to make between $47,000 and
$63,000 their first year.
"Because of the differences in salaries from
private practice, people come to our office wanting to be
prosecutors, believing they can make a different and work for truth
and justice," Parker said.
Gap in training
Along with the wage gap, there are also
discrepancies in the availability of the legal training lawyers are
required to receive each year.
The district attorney's office has funds to do
continuing law training, which is required of lawyers to keep their
Prosecutors get funds from law enforcement
forfeitures, such as confiscated drug money, which they use for
Osburn said the public defender's office does not
have a budget for training.
"We do our own," Osburn said. "For the past
several years Judge (Paul) Clark has let us use his courtroom during
the judicial conferences.
"Private lawyers such as
Dan Monnat have come in and put together programs for us
on a volunteer basis," Osburn said. "But it's all done for free."
Osburn also said he thinks the job stress for
public defenders, who often visit their clients behind bars, is
difficult work for the compensation they receive.
"Prosecutors work in a much more in the abstract,
because they defend the state of Kansas," Osburn said. "We represent
our clients. We can talk to them, touch them and smell them."