To The Editor:
On Monday evening, the St. Lawrence County Legislature voted to revise the salary scale for the Assistant District Attorneys who prosecute felonies and misdemeanors on behalf our residents. Our county has offered salaries for these positions that have not been commensurate with the skills and experience required of the positions for years, if not decades. On a 10-4-1 vote, Legislators rectified this problem.
All nine Democrats on the Board, Mr. Burns, Mr. Paquin, Mr. Putney, Mr. Arquiett, Mr. Morrill, Mr. Peck, Mr. Bunstone, Mr. Putnam and myself, and Mr. Sutherland, a Republican, voted for the measure.
I believe that this was a decision that was long overdue and I would like to explain why I feel this vote was important. Think of our justice system in St. Lawrence County, if you will, as a three-legged stool. It’s much more complex than that but for the purpose of this discussion, think of the stool.
The first leg represents the law enforcement community. We have a very capable and well-trained law enforcement team in St. Lawrence County. The work of our local police officers, Sherriff’s Deputies and State Troopers are complimented by hundreds of Federal agents from agencies such as Customs and Border Protection and other agencies affiliated with the Department of Homeland Security. The law enforcement leg of the stool is very capable and robust.
The second leg represents the judiciary, our judges. Again, we have very capable and very experienced judges in our county. Most of our local magistrates are well tenured and well experienced. Our County Judge, Judge Richards, has received numerous honors during his tenure on the bench and is very well respected by his colleagues. The judiciary leg is solid and capable.
This brings us to the third leg, that of the prosecutor, the office of the District Attorney. Our DA’s office has a considerable caseload, especially when you consider our population. Today, that caseload involves hard drug charges including heroin and methamphetamine, severe domestic violence, rapes and homicides. When I was a kid growing up in Norfolk, aside from countywide domestic violence, these were not really issues. Today, however, these problems are realities in all of our communities.
Practically all of these cases are prosecuted by the Assistant District Attorneys (or ADA’s) that take direction from the District Attorney and the Chief Assistant District Attorney. In the past ten years, the taxpayers of St. Lawrence County have trained and eventually lost 30 ADA’s who have left our county to seek more gainful employment elsewhere. This turnover is unheard of. Absolutely unheard of and it largely relates to salary potential. When I returned to St. Lawrence County eight years ago, an ADA new to the county payroll could expect to earn less than $55,000. Less than $55,000 after four years of college, two years of law school and a bar exam. Really?
The result was that we were not able to attract anyone to these positions that had real experience, especially experience in prosecuting felonies. The average salary for ADA’s in St. Lawrence County has been dreadfully below the state average for a long time. As a result, applicants who weren’t hired by any other county would accept our offer, stay for a few years and get experience, then seek employment in counties with much higher salaries and better cultural amenities like Erie, Albany, Saratoga, etc. Our vote on Monday brought the average salary for our office much closer to parity with state averages. While it is still below these averages, it is at least competitive.
So far, so what?
By offering a salary range that is more in line with state-wide expectations, we are now able to retain a much more experienced ADA staff, all of whom have experience in prosecuting felonies. This is commendable. And, it’s important.
Why? Because in this case, experience will yield more convictions and it will get repeat felons and criminals off our streets and into jail or rehabilitation facilities. Why? Because it will save considerable tax dollars by enabling experienced ADA’s to make decisions in court more quickly. On average, cases that are settled more quickly are less costly. Period. Why? Because if our law enforcement community doesn’t need to pick up the same people over and over and over again, usually for the same types of crimes, their morale goes up and the associated costs of arrests goes down. Why? I could go on with dozens of other reasons but I realize that I can’t do this discussion justice, no pun intended, in the confine of a single letter.
Remember, if a three-legged stool loses one of its struts, the whole structure collapses. That’s what has been happening in our county and that’s what the ten of us voted to fix. I commend my colleagues on their decision to lead and I consider it my privilege to serve.
Jason Clark, Legislator