Prosecutors say low salaries, staff shortages, contribute to delays, backlogs

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Kalkaska County Prosecutor Ryan Ziegler.

Kalkaska County

Kalkaska County Prosecutor Ryan Ziegler.

Capital News Service

LANSING – Thomas Weichel is the only lawyer working in the Alcona County prosecutor’s office, having to balance backlogs of criminal cases while handling the agency’s workload alone.

Weichel said his office has always experienced staff shortages and backlogs.

Such a staff shortage can lead to cases being put on hold until a prosecutor can address them.

“What I do is put out fires,” said Weichel, the immediate past president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, which wants more state funding for prosecutors. “I have to deal with the hottest fire first, sometimes never getting to what’s smoldering out there. 

“I have to handle everything from dogs running at large to murder.”

Since Weichel is the only prosecutor in the county, he said his  office can focus on only one case at a time.

“Everything else lays dormant,” Weichel said.

These shortages also force overloaded prosecutors to work specialized crimes which they may not have been trained to handle, such as child abuse or drunken driving. That’s especially true in smaller counties that may not have specialists on staff, according to Weichel.

“I have to re-educate myself every time I have some of those trials because I might not have had one in two, three years,” he said.

Why are some county prosecutor’s offices like his so understaffed?

“I think it literally just goes all to money,” said Tristen Chamberlain, the chief assistant prosecutor of Leelanau County.

The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission received a large increase in funding last year for lawyers who represent defendants unable to afford a private lawyer

“I think their funding quadrupled in our county,” Chamberlain said. “A prosecutor would work the same amount as a defense attorney, and the defense attorney would make two and a half to three times as much.”

These gaps in salary make prosecution jobs less appealing to recently graduated law students, according to Chamberlain. 

“If a prosecutor’s office is only going to pay you $50,000, $60,000, maybe $70,000; that’s just not going to cut it,” Chamberlain said.

Currently Leelanau County’s office is fully staffed, but one of its lawyers retired last year. When seeking a replacement, it received only three applications, Chamberlain said – one from a person the office had previously convicted. 

“And that was the best one,” Chamberlain said.

“We had no one who could essentially afford to take the job at what it was at,” Chamberlain said.

After requesting more money for salaries from the county board, his office received a 15% increase that attracted another applicant who was hired last October. The new assistant came from the Kalkaska County prosecutor’s office.

Ryan Ziegler, the sole prosecutor in Kalkaska County, said he should have two assistant prosecutors but has had little success in finding replacements since both slots became empty last year. 

“I’ve gotten very few, if any, replies to both of these positions,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler said he’s doing everything he can to keep all his cases moving. Even so, his office has a significant backlog of reports that have been left unread.

“Eventually, if I can’t get someone in here soon enough, there will be a breaking point,” Ziegler said. 

Even in Houghton County’s prosecutor’s office, which is fully staffed, backlogs exist due to vacancies that existed before Prosecutor Dan Helmer took office last November.

After Helmer started, he found hundreds of reports waiting to be reviewed for charges.

They “just sat on a desk until I arrived,” Helmer said. “It took me almost two months to get through those.” 

He said a trial hadn’t occurred in almost two years, with cases being set for trial numerous times, only to be adjourned due to lack of prosecution staff.

The court-appointed defense attorney system is state-funded, unlike prosecutors who are funded at the county level. That contributes to a disproportionate number of defenders and prosecutors, he said.

“Prosecutors now have a higher caseload, prosecutors have a higher stress level, prosecutors are doing more for less money and it’s very hard to encourage people to take these jobs,” Helmer said.

Adam Gershowitz, a professor of criminal law at William & Mary Law School in Virginia published a study last year about a national prosecutor vacancy crisisl. Michigan was included in the study.

Alongside salary reasons, he found other contributing factors.

The first resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, which added to a backlog of cases. It also led to many people working from home, which is hard for prosecutors who are expected to be in court regularly, said Gershowitz. 

That made prosecutor positions less appealing to potential applicants.

Gershowtiz also cited a change in public perception of prosecutors.

“Prosecutors used to be the ‘white hat’ of the criminal justice system,” Gershowitz said. “What I heard from a lot of prosecutors’ offices is that in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, there’s been a sort of shift in the belief that prosecutors are not the ‘moral conscience’ of the criminal justice system.”

In 2020, Floyd, who was Black, was murdered by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while three other officers held bystanders back and helped restrain Floyd. The event furthered an already increasing negative stigma on law enforcement.

Gershowitz said public defenders are now more often viewed as that moral conscience, rather than prosecutors.

“If you teach in a law school, you can sense that that’s particularly true generationally with younger folks,” said Gershowitz.

The prosecutor shortage can harm public safety, said Gershowitz.

“The criminal justice system is filled with defendants,” Gershowitz said. “Some of them are guilty, some of them are very dangerous and we want prosecutors to have time to work on those cases, right?” 

Gershowitz said prosecutors’ offices have become more aggressive in recruitment..

They’ve been appearing at job fairs more often and advertising more aggressively at law schools. Some offices even attend high schools “to plant the seeds of creating a pipeline to attract students in the future,” Gershowitz said.

Ziegler emphasizes the importance of the job.

“We need people to stay in prosecuting positions long-term, and we need people who are experienced so we can enforce the laws appropriately and properly, and handle the caseloads coming in,” he said. 

Alcona County Prosecutor Thomas Weichel.

Alcona County

Alcona County Prosecutor Thomas Weichel.
Houghton County Prosecutor Daniel Helmer

Houghton County

Houghton County Prosecutor Daniel Helmer
Leelanau County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Tristan Chamberlain.


Leelanau County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Tristan Chamberlain.

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