Government lawyers threaten to go on strike

Prosecutors at the Contra Costa (CA) District Attorney's Office are unhappy enough with their pay that they are considering not coming to work. The prosecutors' collective bargaining unit is set to vote Thursday night on whether its more than 80 members should strike, staying out of courtrooms for at least one day in November.

A strike could leave a half-dozen supervisory prosecutors filing criminal charges and appearing in court to keep suspects from getting out of jail.

"The message has not gotten through that we cannot handle the violent crime, and we cannot protect citizens anymore," said prosecutor Barry Grove, president of the District Attorneys' Association.

Grove said too many experienced prosecutors are leaving for more pay in other counties or to join private law firms. This leaves a gap of prosecutors experienced enough to take on complicated cases, usually murders, assaults and other crimes that can carry life sentences in prison.

After six months of negotiations, the county's human resources director, Lori Gentles, said the county is still trying to broker a deal and is always concerned about retaining employees.

"We're at the initial stages of bargaining," Gentles said. "We look at what the market bears and what the county can afford."

Grove and other prosecutors call their situation a public safety concern, citing a loss of 10 attorneys this year, five of whom had at least 10 years of experience and handled serious cases.

"You've got a shooting gallery in West Contra Costa," Grove said. "We can't handle it."

For instance, each attorney who handles homicides is juggling as many as 18 cases. A normal load is about 12, said prosecutor Harold Jewett.

County Supervisor John Gioia of Richmond said he does not want to lose talented prosecutors, but county supervisors are limited to a budget.

"We want to pay the right amount to preserve public safety," Gioia said. "We don't want to raise salaries in such a way that we have to cut other law enforcement services to save money."

The prosecutors' bargaining unit and the county have been negotiating a three-year contract for the past six months. Grove said that prosecutors proposed a 30 percent pay increase over three years to bring their salaries up to the average of Bay Area prosecutors in the most populous counties.

The county countered with 7 percent over three years, according to Mary Knox, the association's secretary, who is also a negotiator.

"It was just a slap in the face," Knox said.

Gentles declined to comment on negotiation specifics.

Prosecutors say that despite being the second-lowest-paid office in the Bay Area, they deal with more crime.

For instance, Contra Costa County had 80 homicides in 2005, according to the state Department of Justice. That accounts for the third-most homicides in the nine Bay Area counties, compared with 126 in Alameda County and 96 in San Francisco County.

If prosecutors strike, the handful of managers who would take their places must file charges within 48 hours of a suspect's arrest. They must also present evidence at preliminary hearings for suspects who demand them within 10 days of an arraignment. Otherwise, judges must order the defendant's release.

Defendants might have a tough time finding their own lawyers on the day of a strike. The president of the local Public Defenders' Association will urge his members not to cross the prosecutors' picket line.

Deputy public defender Mike Kelly said Contra Costa County supervisors gave themselves a 60 percent raise in 2006 because it brought them to the average salary of supervisors across the Bay Area.

He said attorneys deserve the same.

The salaries of deputy public defenders depend on prosecutors' salaries. The county agreed in 2005 to pay deputy public defenders the same level as deputy district attorneys. A raise for prosecutors will also bump the salaries of public defenders.

The county's district attorney, Robert Kochly, said he supports the prosecutors. He said his office ends up providing training for young lawyers.

"This situation has caused us to lose a huge amount of talent," Kochly said. "I support an agreement that will pay a salary that will entice most of them not to get their training in our office and the rest of their career in another."


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