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I hope I wasn't the only one who was floored to read the following quote in this morning's Sun-Times:
"This world is upside down when public defenders who represent criminals make more than the men and women in this office."
It's attributed to first assistant state's attorney Robert Milan, Cook County's second-ranking prosecutor. I assume this is just careless venting over the fact that Cook County Board president Todd Stroger has apparently backed out of an agreement to boost prosecutors' pay. Because if it's how Milan and the attorneys he supervises really think, then it means the state's attorney's office doesn't have much respect for some of the basic fundamentals of American justice.
Mr. Milan has spent more time in law school than I have, but it's my understanding that the people represented by the public defender's office have merely been accused of crimes. Perhaps it would be more efficient and less costly (an important point, since we need more money to pay prosecutors better) if all the people Milan's office deemed to be criminals were simply declared guilty. But that's not how it works--for obvious reasons.
"Many of our clients are charged and their cases are dismissed," Xavier Velasco, chief of operations for the public defender's office, pointed out in an interview this morning. "Others go to trial and are found not guilty. Of course, some go to trial and are found guilty."
This is the reason both Milan and Velasco--essentially Milan's counterpart in the defender's office--have their jobs. They're not judges or juries--they're attorneys who, on behalf of the public, have the right and responsibility to present evidence about someone's guilt. Then the two sides negotiate and, if necessary, go to court for a decision.
And it's not like the public defender's office is some feel-good charity set up to soothe the consciences of champagne liberals. "We represent the indigent, and we do so from constitutional mandate as well as statutory mandate," Velasco said. In other words, the right to legal counsel is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and state law, and courts have found that this is as true for the poor as it is for those who can pay their own attorneys.
"This is not a technicality here," Velasco said. "This is a basic constitutional right."
And it doesn't have anything to do with the battle over pay raises for prosecutors--or public defenders, for that matter.
Most experts say there aren't enough prosecutors OR defenders, especially after both offices have faced budget cuts. And Velasco said that while rank-and-file defenders are now paid more than comparable prosecutors, the reverse is true for supervisors in the two offices.
Velasco said he's in favor of raising pay for prosecutors--and for defender's office supervisors. "We should all be making the same amount of money, because we do the same work," he said. "There should be complete parity."
In the paper, Milan also was quoted as vowing some sort of revenge if prosecutors' proposed 12 percent salary hikes don't come through. "Every one of these commissioners is going to pay the price if they don't take care of us," he said. "This president and his staff are going to pay the price if they don't take care of us."
Meaning what? Perhaps it's too optimistic to wonder if Cook County prosecutors might retaliate by keeping their senses alert for evidence of corruption in county offices.