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The arrival of spring also marks the beginning of budget season for county government, and that means prosecutors are once again making their cases for raising assistant prosecutors’ salaries. Their goal: to slow down the perpetual revolving door that, on average, spins assistants out into the private sector after only nine years on the job. Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini Jr. is one such supplicant. He’s asked his county freeholder board to fund across-the-board raises of $4,000 to $6,000, totaling $230,000 in 2004, plus an additional $100,000 allotment for discretionary bonuses. Assistant prosecutors’ salaries vary county to county, and Mercer is in the middle-to-lower range. The $38,500 starting salary Bocchini pays entry-level prosecutors lags behind counties like Hudson and Middlesex by 17 percent. And since raises are incremental, the average salary for all Mercer assistant prosecutors is uncompetitive. In fact, assistant prosecutors in Mercer are paid about the same as the detectives who staff their offices, and much less than municipal police officers, despite a big difference in the educational requirements. “The last time I checked, every one of my attorneys in this office must have graduated from college, must have graduated from law school, and . . . must have been admitted to the New Jersey state bar,” Bocchini says. “That’s not to demean a police officer, but most police departments require two-year degrees.” The complaint, though perhaps more acute in Mercer County, is not atypical. Retention of qualified assistants is tough. The private sector’s promise of riches still woos the most seasoned prosecutors, even in the better-paying counties. A new assistant typically takes about three years to train, but many leave after around five years, and Bocchini says it’s usually due to pressures of education loans and family responsibilities or the desire to buy homes. That kind of attrition leaves a void in middle management. Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio, for example, has a core group of assistant prosecutors with more than 20 years of service and another large group with fewer than five years on the job. “It’s in this middle area where you get hurt by the attrition,” says DeFazio. “There’s something to be said for young blood, but it hurts when you lose experienced people.” That’s why prosecutors become budget advocates each spring. “I know as of recently, most prosecutors’ offices have made an effort to get the salaries of their assistants closer to the private sector,” says Burlington County Prosecutor Robert Bernardi, president of the County Prosecutors Association. “But the variations of politics in each county comes into play with regard to the ability to negotiate their salaries.” Hunterdon County Prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes made it one of his first tasks upon appointment in 2002 to convince his freeholder board to approve across-the-board raises of roughly 20 percent for assistant prosecutors, boosting the mean salary to more than $89,000. With an average length of service of 12.2 years, third best in the state, Barnes’ office hasn’t been plagued by defections. There is a loose correlation between salary scale and retention rates [ Related chart: Assistant Prosecutor Compensation]. The three counties with the highest average length of service – Sussex, Middlesex and Hunterdon – also boast three of the highest mean salaries. Salem, meanwhile, ranks lowest in both categories. But there are notable exceptions. Essex County, for example, ranks second to last in average pay, $53,262, yet assistants stay on the job for an average 8.6 years, which is close to the statewide average. Atlantic County, which pays a middling $71,949, shows retention of 11.7 years: the fourth best in the state. The pay disparities don’t follow a geographic logic, either. While cost of living is generally lower in the southern part of the state, assistant Camden County prosecutors make over $27,000 more than their colleagues in Essex County. Atlantic County assistants make about $6,000 more than those in Hudson. And bucolic Sussex County, blissfully couched on the piedmont of the Appalachians, leads all 21 counties with average pay of $91,000 and a retention rate of 16 years. Nor has collective bargaining factored for much. About a third of the county prosecutors’ offices are union shops [see chart], but on average, their salaries are roughly even with non-unionized offices. The statewide Assistant Prosecutors Association, formed to advocate for its members’ interests, doesn’t get involved in salary issues in individual counties. “Our organization prefers cooperative efforts with the county prosecutors, rather than confrontational efforts,” says vice president Thomas Cannavo, an assistant Ocean County prosecutor. A January 2002 increase in pension benefits that was designed to slow attrition may have actually served to accelerate it. Assistant prosecutors may now retire after 25 years of service with 65 percent of their salaries, regardless of age, the same terms offered to police officers. In Passaic County, the accelerated pension eligibility prompted retirements of 10 of the 60 budgeted assistant prosecutor positions in 2003, says Assistant Prosecutor Paul Chiaramonte, president of the county’s collective bargaining unit. Hudson’s DeFazio predicts the sweetened pension will prompt more retirements in the coming years. “Despite the fact that you have a relatively lucrative pension, after five years, maybe you’re making $60,000 as an attorney,” he says. “That is not a large salary as compared to what people are making in private industry, or even in some other government agencies.” The good news is that the salary and benefit levels don’t deter new lawyers from becoming assistant prosecutors, since law students preparing for the field of criminal justice tend to be “passionate” and aren’t looking to get rich, says Frances Bouchoux, assistant dean for Career Services at Rutgers Law School-Newark. The interest in such jobs has increased since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “Anything that can be done that can make these jobs more attractive, I think you’re going to attract more people,” she says.

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