Rappaport Center Forum: Budget Battles in a Down Economy

Daniel Conley, Michael O’Keefe, Michael Widmer, the Honorable John Greaney, David Carroll, Anthony Benedetti, and John Salsberg


District attorneys from across Massachusetts complained of a “broken system,” in which prosecutors are overworked and underpaid while public defenders enjoy expanding budgets and carry smaller caseloads, during a jam-packed and heated debate hosted by the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service.

Defense lawyers fired back that the DAs were supporting their claims with distorted facts. They argued that the DA’s suggestion that both sides should have equal caseloads fails to account for assistance prosecutors get from police investigators and other state resources, as well as the extra duties defense attorneys take on to defend indigent clients.

A crowd of about 250, many of them attorneys, listened to a panel made up of members on both sides of the issue, including Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services; David Carroll, director of research and evaluation for the National Legal Aid & Defender Association; Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley; District Attorney Michael O’Keefe from the Cape and Islands District; John Salsberg, chair of the Suffolk Lawyers for Justice; and Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

Moderating the Rappaport Center event, titled "Budget Battles in a Down Economy," was the Honorable John Greaney, former justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and director of the Macaronis Institute for Trial and Appellate Advocacy at Suffolk University Law School.

"The district attorneys' position is simple," said O'Keefe. "The system for funding indigent defense is broken, to the detriment of the taxpayer and the public's safety . . . . There is something fundamentally wrong with the system that allocates $92 million to the district attorneys to prosecute 300,000 cases, yet gives tens of millions more to CPCS to defend only two-thirds of those cases."

O'Keefe went on to say that the "structure of CPCS guarantees cost overruns," and he criticized the organization for outsourcing the majority of its cases to private attorneys, known as "bar advocates."

Benedetti, however, shot back.

"For the DAs to suggest, as they have in numerous media outlets, that CPCS is not well-run and not well-managed is insulting," said Benedetti, noting that every year CPCS is required to file reports and provide information that describe in detail operations and spending.

Benedetti excoriated O'Keefe and other district attorneys for spending too much on prosecuting people who should be diverted from the criminal justice system. Salsberg took aim at O’Keefe for suggesting private attorneys, who are paid by the hour, are boosting their fees by taking longer than necessary to defend cases.

Both groups offered solutions to the budget issue, with district attorneys proposing a system of "parity in funding" based on prosecutor and defender caseloads and increased full-time staff for CPCS who can handle more cases. The public defenders, however, contended that DAs could afford to use more discretion in deciding which cases to bring to court.

Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, discussed the financial crisis's effect on the state. He said it is important for district attorneys and public defenders to find ways to alleviate the financial burden being placed on Massachusetts taxpayers.

Said Widmer, "The overarching question the judicial system has to address is how are we going to do more with less?"

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