It's case overload for prosecuting attorneys

Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Assistant prosecuting attorney Jason Denney took a crate of files into a courtroom at the Scott County Courthouse in Benton on Thursday. He is one of three prosecuting attorneys in Benton. That day they had more than 100 cases on the docket. (Diane L. Wilson)

BENTON, Mo. -- Even when away from the office, work never stops for Paul Boyd.

At times the Scott County prosecuting attorney can get up to 20 calls a weekend from law enforcement officers. It's all part of the job.

"They don't want to do the job wrong," he said of the officers, whom he advises on search warrants and other criminal investigation questions.

Calls are made to his office and the cellular phone he always carries, even on vacation. "This phone I've got is my leash every day," he said.

Prosecutors arguably have the heaviest case load of any attorney in the judicial system. Every charge that is filed, whether for a traffic violation or homicide, is filtered through the prosecuting attorney's office.

Last year, Boyd's office filed 2,511 new cases. Between himself, two full-time assistant prosecuting attorneys and a part-time assistant prosecuting attorney, that amounts to more than 700 cases each year per attorney.

Boyd's caseload from 2005 is about equal to Cape Girardeau County's, where 2,500 new cases were filed that year. The main difference is that Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle has five assistant prosecutors, double the amount Boyd has.

"We're just at the level we can handle," Swingle said. "I don't see how Paul Boyd does it."

According to a 2005 estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau, Scott County has 41,143 residents compared to Cape Girardeau County's 71,161. Boyd speculated the difference in case load was that Scott County had more small towns with more officers than in Cape Girardeau County.

Sikeston, Mo., also had a similar crime rate compared to Cape Girardeau, despite having a lower population. In 2005, there were 6.4 crimes for every 100 people in Cape Girardeau, and 5.9 crimes for every 100 people in Sikeston, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

In October 2005, an independent consulting firm described the Missouri public defenders as a system in crisis because the court-appointed lawyers were taking on more cases than was recommended.

But as many prosecutors point out, the prosecuting attorney's office has all the same cases as public defenders and more.

"I have the same amount of work public defenders have," plus unrepresented defendants and those with private attorneys, said Dana Weis, assistant prosecutor for Scott County.

With the more cases comes longer hours. Swingle works at least 50 hours a week and up to 70 the week of a trial. Boyd was hesitant to speculate about how many hours a week he spends working but estimated about 65 hours a week and more before a trial.

Boyd was brought to Scott County while working as a special prosecutor for the Missouri Attorney General's office. Wes Drury, the Scott County prosecutor's investigator, helped convince Boyd to come work for the county as an assistant prosecutor.

"He wanted a challenge, and I don't think I've disappointed him," Drury said.

With such hectic work hours, it is no surprise the office has a high turnover rate. Swingle said that before Cape Girardeau County raised the salary level of his assistants, he lost several experienced prosecutors, including three in one year.

But in 1999, Cape Girardeau County raised the starting salary for an assistant prosecutor to between $31,400 and $33,600, with a ceiling of $50,800 after about four years. In Scott County, assistant prosecutors start at about $34,000 and max out at $48,000, Boyd said.

Weis, a former assistant public defender, said she was paid more as a defender and had fewer cases and more time off. That was mostly due to the fact the public defenders office is run by the state, which is able to provide the job perks her county job can't.

Assistant public defenders in Missouri start at a salary of nearly $33,800 and top out at $52,000 after five years.

Scott County has fewer revenue-producing businesses than neighboring counties, meaning less revenue available to pay for prosecutors. Even though part of Sikeston, Mo., is in Scott County, the big money maker, Wal-Mart, is on the New Madrid County side of town.

"It all comes down to money," Scott County Presiding Commissioner Martin Priggel said.

The state of Missouri does not provide any money for local county prosecutors, according to John T. Kay, prosecutor for Moniteau County and president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

While it is important for the county prosecutor to be locally elected, Kay said, it is important to realize that the prosecutors represent the state of Missouri.

"Our client is really the state of Missouri," he said. "There's no doubt that the state in general really has a responsibility here."

Boyd speculated that eventually Missouri may have to provide resources and grants to help out smaller prosecutor officers whose counties do not enough funding.

Scott County doesn't have enough resources to provide additional help for his office, Boyd said. And even if another assistant prosecutor could be hired, there is not enough office space.

"At some point we're going to need a way for the state to step up," he said.

State Rep. Peter Myers, R-Sikeston, said state help for local prosecutors was not something currently in the works, but added that officials "should look at it."

kmorrison@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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