District Attorneys face staff shortages | Top Story

ATTORNEY

BATAVIA — Genesee County District Attorney Kevin Finnell is going through something he said other DA’s offices are dealing with — an open (or soon-to-be open) assistant DA job that he hasn’t been able to fill.

The assistant district attorney, whom Finnell did not identify, citing a personnel issue, submitted his letter of resignation. He will resign with a couple of weeks, Finnell said. The ADA has been with the office for three years.

Finnell said the ADA position pays well, but acknowledged the opportunity to make more money elsewhere is enticing.

“The salary is based on experience and then there are increases built in.” Finnell said. “Honestly, the county compensates the position very well. It’s just that some people are looking for different opportunities. This is just something that DA’s office throughout the state are dealing with now. That’s the way the system works. We have a lot of employees who are committed professionals and they’re interested in continuing in their career to serve the public.”

The district attorney mentioned getting an application from someone who had graduated from law school, but hadn’t passed the bar.

“That’s the only kind of applicant that any of these offices is getting now,” he said. “That’s very concerning for us as a GLOW region or Western New York region. We’re just not getting the bodies to fill the positions. We’ll keep working on that and hopefully we’ll buck the trend and get somebody, and be able to hire them.”

The district attorney said in a lot of the DA’s offices in the GLOW region and beyond, there’s been communication back and forth because with indigent legal services, the state has provided a lot of grant money for the defense attorneys.

“A lot of the discussion is on the size of the staffs. The public defender’s side is getting funding for a lot more assistance and that’s fine. I’m not criticizing that,’ he said. “But we are on the other end of the spectrum with more cases, more responsibility in a sense … “

There has been a change in people’s perceptions of police and prosecutors from when he started to now.

“We all know that. The bottom line is, people aren’t applying for these jobs,” he said.

Finnell said one particular applicant was interviewed and seemed promising, but it never went any further.

“We liked him. We made a job offer to him. He never even responded. I don’t know what that means, other than there’s something about the job that he was not interested in,” Finnell said. “That’s really our primary concern now, because when we lose even one person, we’ve got six other of us that have to pick up the slack, additional night courts.”

That becomes pretty stressful for Finnell and the rest of the staff, he said.

How many attorneys are on staff with the Genesee County DA’s office now?

The Genesee County DA’s office has been fully staffed until this month, Finnell said. The office has been down one clerk-typist position for an extended period of time. It’s a job he’s trying to fill, but is not getting a lot of applicants.

The county posted June 13 on its Facebook site that Finnell’s office is seeking experienced candidates for ADA. New York State Bar admission is required and candidates with significant criminal litigation experience will get preference. The salary range is from $82,543 to $104,419, depending on experience, plus benefits, including health insurance and New York state pension.

Finnell told the Public Service Committee this week that he has six ADAs, including the one who submitted his resignation.

“Two and myself have been career prosecutors. The younger assistants, we’re finding, are more good people, good attorneys, but they are very concerned about money, finances,” he said. “The problem with the attorneys in my office is the assigned council rate has gone up tremendously. It’s at $158 an hour now. That’s one of the reasons this attorney (is leaving).”

Finnell said the assistant district attorney is still in the office, but that there have been exit interviews.

“I’ve been talking with him for quite awhile, as have other members of the office to find out why he’s leaving,” he said. “To be fair, he was never going to be a career prosecutor, but he did informally commit to spend more time with us until this came up. Despite the fact that we’ve discussed with him all the overhead that a private practitioner has in terms of practice, health insurance, things like that, it’s still, in his estimation, a better financial decision to leave now.”

Finnell said his office has told the ADA there is public service loan forgiveness.

“This individual told me he has a very large student loan. He’s got three or four years in state service now because he worked in Albany before. The pitch was, six more years and he can have his loan forgiven,” Finnell said. “He tells me he can pay it off in half that time with the new assigned counsel rate that he’s going to be getting and working less hours.”

The other thing the employee mentioned is stress, Finnell said.

LIVINGSTON COUNTY

County District Attorney Gregory McCaffrey is working with five full-time attorneys.

“However, this pales in comparison to the growing number of attorneys employed in both our public defender and conflict defender’s office, both of which receive substantial state funding from ILS (indigent legal services), have both part-time and full-time attorneys and have caseload caps,” he said.

McCaffrey said his office currently has an opening for an ADA with only two applicants in more than three months.

“When I began as DA in 2012, our first opening had over 20 applicants for an experienced, felony level position and I had the choice of five or six extremely qualified, experienced prosecutors,” he said. “That pattern continued for many years. However, since 2020, any opening we have had has required us reaching out to look for candidates or only having one or two applicants per opening. Our last two openings, we have hired the only candidate we interviewed.”

The DA’s office is in the county courthouse.

“If we had more office space, as well as any additional turnover in losing some of my experienced ADAs, we would likely hire more than one,” the district attorney said. “We are fortunate, currently, in that my first assistant district attorney has 22 years experience, two additional prosecutors both have over 14 years experience in prosecution and I carry a significant caseload as an elected DA, which allows us all to handle larger caseloads.”

Livingston County lost an experienced ADA a few months ago who took a federally funded position in the Monroe County DA’s office, a larger one than in Livingston, McCaffrey said this week.

“She was an assistant district attorney carrying both a town/village caseload over four courts and carrying over 30 felony cases, including several trials before she left,” he said.

The Livingston DA said he figures most of his ADAs have been contacted to switch to defense work due to the significant amount of money available to work on the defense side and. there’s also the surplus of openings, coupled with the ability to work far less hours at a higher pay rate, he said.

“Three or four prosecutors that I have lost in the last three to five years now make significantly more money working within Livingston County or have left for more money elsewhere. Currently, our county public defender, conflict defender and department of social services attorney are all former ADAs within my office during my 11 years as DA,” McCaffrey said.

How qualified have the candidates he’s interviewed lately been attorney candidates been that you’ve interviewed lately?

McCaffrey said one person came from a neighboring DA’s office with several years experience and the other had taken the bar exam in February, was awaiting the results and was to graduate from law school in May.

The county’s 26 town and village justice courts are being covered by two ADAs instead of three.

The salary of the elected DA is tied to what county court judges make by statute and the range of salaries for ADAs ranges from approximately $75,000 to around $115,000 depending on years of experience and title.

WYOMING COUNTY

District Attorney Donald O’Geen, who may have a different job after this year, said when there’s a staff opening, his office continuously gotten one or two applicants.

“This has been a significant long term downward trend and this was before the $158 per hour assigned counsel rate. This will certainly create an even bigger challenge for hiring assistant DAs,” he told The Daily News Friday. “We currently have three assistant DAs and obviously my position. We are currently at full staff, however, it is anticipated that I will become the next Wyoming County Court judge if elected this November. That will create an opening that we will try and begin to fill in the coming months.”

When the DA’s office has a vacancy, that can cause in increase in 25-35% increase in cases being handled per attorney. With a small office any loss can be a huge impact. Prior to adding the third assistant DA, we had the highest per attorney felony caseload in the state.

As for salaries, the starting salaries — before the increase to $158 per hour for assigned counsel rate) were about $70,000.

“My salary is set as a state minimum. All of these salaries were and will continue to be lower than the private sector — not even close,” he said.

Three things have made recruiting harder, O’Geen said, are the demands of the new discovery laws; the increasing disparity between the ADA pay and now the pay for assistant public defenders, private practitioners and assigned counsel; the continued assault on prosecutors and police by the politicians across the state and nation vilifying the honorable work that both do each and every day.

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