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September 19, 2017

Can an assistant public defender in California make nearly $300,000 per year?

Upon seeing this local article, headlined "Taxpayer cost for mass murderer Scott Dekraai’s case tops $2.5 million," I was starting to do a post on the high costs of problematic capital cases in California. (Regular readers may recall that the Dekraai case made headlines last month, as blogged here, when Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals excluded the death penalty as a punishment option due to law enforcement misconduct linked to a jail informant program.)  Here is how that article gets started:

If all goes as expected, the worst mass killer in Orange County history, Scott Dekraai, will be sentenced Friday, Sept. 22, to eight terms of life without parole, one term each for the people he fatally shot in Seal Beach six years ago.

But the sentence comes with a relatively high price tag after a judge rejected the death penalty and concluded local prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies had engaged in misconduct, according to records and interviews. As of Sept. 6, the Dekraai case has cost taxpayers at least $2.5 million, according to an analysis by the Southern California News Group.

But the question now in this title of this post emerges from my back-of-the-envelop assessment of this line item in cost analysis appearing in the article: "Assistant public defender Scott Sanders – $842,635: 50 percent of his total compensation, adjusted yearly, for five years and 10 months." If I am understanding this line item, it suggest that an assistant public defender received "total compensation" of nearly $1.7 million in less than six years, which amounts to annual salary of nearly $300,000. Though I will never begrudge a good lawyer making a good salary, the prospect of a public defender making this much on a yearly basis would certainly undermine the notion that all public defenders are over-worked and under-paid.

Because a quick web search brings up data suggesting that the average public defender annual salary in LA is more like $97,000, I am thinking there is something hinky in the numbers being used for accounting the costs of the Dekraai case.  And, perhaps even more to the point, this article with or without accounting errors, highlights how hard it is to really properly assess the complete costs to taxpayers of our criminal justice systems.

September 19, 2017 at 12:04 PM | Permalink


What value did the taxpayer receive from the total cost? The rent seeking is on both sides. Both sides are stealing tax money and returning no value. In the defense of the prosecutors and of the defense attorneys, this system was ultimately designed by the US Supreme Court. It is the justices that should be held accountable. At a minimum, these crooks should be impeached. Preferably, they should go to prison.

Posted by: David Behar | Sep 19, 2017 1:29:06 PM

California county PDs are better paid than most, but no one makes $300k, save possibly the boss of a very large urban office like LA County. The best-paid county PDs (in the very expensive Bay Area counties of Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Alameda) start at or just under $100k and top out (after decades of experience) around or slightly over $200k. California counties almost all pay public defenders and prosecutors the same.

California is one of the few states where local public defenders can earn more than their federal colleagues, whose pay tops out around $160k (as it does for AUSAs).

Posted by: Anon | Sep 19, 2017 1:40:58 PM

Compare to medicine. You come out of med school knowing a few vocabulary words, and some concepts. You put in 10,000 hours into learning a specialty. During that time, you get as good as any board eligible doctor. You get paid $50,000 for 4 years. You have provided care to thousands of people a year and saved dozens if not 100's of lives. That is the value the lawyers in the federal government have assigned to doctors in training.

These defense and prosecutor positions are the same. You emerge from law school knowing almost nothing about what really goes on. You have to ask the secretaries how to fill out a charging document. The lawyers have determined that is worth twice as much as the doctor who is worth his weight in gold.

These lawyers protect, privilege, and empower the criminal. They prosecute victims who dare defend themselves. Their number relative to the population increase the crime rate. South America is more over-lawyered than we are. They have higher crime rates. The lawyer actually is toxic and destroys economic value, every year they live.

Posted by: David Behar | Sep 19, 2017 2:08:29 PM

Dylan Roof fired his defense lawyers because of their ethnicities. Judges ruled the motion frivolous. It is not frivolous. Will lawyers from ethnic groups targeted by the defendant be able to provide zealous representation? I know they competitive whores who want to score points, however, will they be able to overcome the fear and loathing of their client for who they are?

I agree the request is not valid in the absence of instances of IAC, but it is not frivolous. If another appellate court declares IAC, will he be able to sue them for failure to resign when asked?


Posted by: David Behar | Sep 19, 2017 4:43:37 PM

Say the salary is $100,000 for 2000 hours a year. Say overtime is double, or $100 an hour. In order to average $300,000, he would have had to work an extra 2000 hours a year, or 80 hours every week for 50 weeks, 16 hours a day 5 days a week, or 13 hours a day 6 days a week.

Posted by: David Behar | Sep 19, 2017 4:53:56 PM

Public defenders are exempt salaried professionals and don't earn overtime pay.

Posted by: Anon | Sep 19, 2017 8:02:05 PM

Prof. Berman, it isn't clear whether the defense salary includes expenses paid for experts or not. I would tend to think that it doesn't because that information would be information that is under seal. However, perhaps California is different? The defense salary becomes believeable if you think that includes the cost for a mit spec, investigator (if hired out of office), and a variety of experts (including those who are not called because they agree with the government) are mistakenly included as defense salary.

Posted by: Capital Public Defender | Sep 19, 2017 9:58:08 PM

This position may be seen as a medical residency. You will know nothing about real world law coming from law school. I sat in the back of traffic court for a half day. It is run under the Rules of Criminal Procedure, in PA. I saw nothing from a law school education. And nothing I saw was ever covered in law school.

So you do 4 DUI's a day as a prosecutor or defense attorney for 4 years, at $100,000. Then you take your DUI expertise and sell it at $10,000 a case to rich defendants in outside defense practice. Meaning you prevent dangerous alcoholics from getting the help they need from the criminal justice system, and you are totally responsible for all the future injuries and deaths caused by the drunk driving client. That means, every year you live, you cause $millions in damages to families and to the economy.

Then, some are not smart enough, and they stay in the system. They hand carry plea offers from the prosecutor to the client, in place of an email service, and fail to outperform pro se litigants who never finished high school.

Posted by: David Behar | Sep 19, 2017 11:12:16 PM

If you read down further in the OC Register story, you'll see that the $842,635 number isn't based just on the APD's salary but his "total compensation," i.e., including all benefits. "Dekraai’s defense probably ran close to $1 million, an estimate derived by calculating Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders’ time on the case … and dividing it by his total compensation." As a very general rule, I believe, an employee's salary usually equals only about half his or her total compensation. If so, Sanders probably earns closer to $150,000 than to $300,000.

Posted by: Don DeBenedictis | Sep 21, 2017 3:50:33 PM

Dear Professor Bergman,

I am one of your biggest fans.

If your research found ". . . the average public defender annual salary in LA is more like $97,000. . . ," then I think state-level public PDs across the USA would be forming a waiting line at the employment office by the nearest beach there.

Where I'm from, - - Tucson, Pima County, AZ, a state bordering CA, - - 30+ years of service as a public PD who was a true believer in the Bill of Rights, for richer or poorer, would've meant a principal household provider gets only a net monthly income direct banking deposit of less than $5K to live on for himself / herself + dependents in an extended family.

IMHO, we don't need any media-created-crisis, at least at this point in time, whether by the mainstream or the blawgers.

Posted by: Barry Jon Baker Sipe | Sep 24, 2017 9:49:38 AM

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