District attorneys’ offices across the U.S. are struggling to recruit and retain lawyers, with some having vacancy rates of up to 16 percent and a dearth of applicants for open jobs, according to interviews with more than a dozen top prosecutors and five state and national prosecutors’ associations.
The district attorneys said the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing concern about racial inequities in the criminal justice system — compounded by long-standing issues with low pay and burnout — have made a career as a state prosecutor a tougher sell, Reuters reports.
“We're seeing a prosecutor shortage throughout the country; it's not limited to large jurisdictions versus small jurisdictions,” said Nelson Bunn of the National District Attorneys Association, a trade group with 5,000 members.
The number of applicants to entry-level prosecutor positions in San Diego County — which has the second-largest district attorney’s office in California at 330 lawyers — halved from 68 in 2019 to 34 in 2021, said chief deputy district attorney Dwain Woodley.
In Utah, open positions in the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office are between 21 and 25 in an office that should have 133 lawyers. Attorneys in its special victims’ unit are handling double the number of cases recommended by the American Bar Association, District Attorney Sim Gill said. “Crime has not dissipated in any significant way to offset the backlog,” Gill said.
Staffing shortages affect prosecutors’ decisions about whether to bring certain cases to trial, says Anthony Jordan, president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York.
"We don’t get to choose the crimes that come in," said Jordan, the DA in Washington County, N.Y.. "But if you don’t have enough people to prosecute them then you have to let certain ones go.”
In the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in Phoenix, the number of cases the office prosecuted dropped from nearly two-thirds of felonies referred by law enforcement in 2018 to under half in 2020. The number of vacancies in the office of 338 attorneys increased nearly 53 percent between July 2020 and April 2022.
Prosecutors typically earn less than private-sector lawyers, but the public service aspect of the job, the good work/life balance, and the ability to gain trial experience early on — an opportunity new lawyers at large firms rarely get — have long helped district attorneys’ offices attract lawyers.