Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Study finds state compensation system prompts newer prosecutors to quit

Changes in the compensation system for assistant district attorneys could reduce turnover and improve public safety, according to a new La Follette School report.

"Of Wisconsin's 330 assistant district attorneys, 246 left their jobs between 2001 and 2007," says public management expert professor Dennis Dresang, who led the study. "A 75 percent turnover rate presents challenges for any organization, but the implications are especially alarming for public safety when the employees are the prosecutors, the attorneys whose work in county court make up a critical component of the state's overall criminal justice system."

The study, "Public Safety and Assistant District Attorney Staffing in Wisconsin," surveyed current and former ADAs. The authors, who include La Follette School students and an alum, found that the opportunity to serve the public is the major reason that individuals become county prosecutors. They also learned that the state's compensation system prompts these public servants to leave their jobs, usually within the first five years of service.

"The annual turnover rate for Wisconsin ADAs since 1990 is 15.6 percent. Since 2000 it is 17.2 percent, and since 2005 it is 18.4 percent," Dresang says. "These rates contrast with an annual turnover rate for public employees that is usually 5 percent to 7 percent. In Milwaukee and Dane counties, which have the state's highest crime rates and the largest ADA staffs, almost one-half of the prosecutors have less than five years of experience."

A 1989 state law shifted responsibility for ADA compensation from counties to the state government. District Attorneys in each of Wisconsin's 72 counties appoint and supervise their ADAs, but the state pays the ADAs based on statewide compensation criteria, Dresang notes. About 330 ADAs prosecute throughout Wisconsin.

To lower ADA turnover in Wisconsin, the study recommends, the state should improve compensation by giving high performers merit increases, targeting ADAs with three to 10 years of experience, and accounting for the higher cost of living in Milwaukee and Dane counties.

In addition to Dresang, the authors are La Follette School alum Jerrett Jones, a doctoral student in the University of Wisconsin–Madison's Department of Sociology, and second-year students Alex Marach and Hilary J. Waukau.

Crime and Courts: Turnover of prosecutors reaching crisis proportions, report says, October 26, 2011, The Cap Times

Study finds prosecutor turnover 'alarming,' suggests pay changes, October 26, 2011, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel