Friday, December 23, 2016

Second-highest turnover rate among Florida State's Attorneys: RALPH JOSEPH LARIZZA

Seventh Circuit State's Attorney RALPH JOSEPH LARIZZA et pal, St. Johns County Sheriff DAVID BERNARD SHOAR f/k/a "HOAR"

Daytona State Attorney's Office sees another year of high turnover

Seventh Circuit Assistant State Attorney Jason Lewis speaks to other [white] prosecutors during a recent training session at the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center in Bunnell. News-Journal/Frank Fernandez

Posted Apr 23, 2016 at 4:34 PM

The local State Attorney's office has had the second highest turnover rate in Florida the past two out of three years.

By Frank Fernandez
Daytona Beach Nwws-Journal
DAYTONA BEACH - The local State Attorney's office has had the second highest turnover rate in Florida two out of the past three years.

State Attorney R.J. Larizza's 7th Judicial Circuit office based in Daytona Beach saw a turnover rate of 24 percent for the fiscal year 2014-15, according to data from the Justice Administrative Commission. That was the second highest that year among the state's 20 prosecutors' offices. Only the 3rd Judicial Circuit in North Florida was higher at 31 percent.

The previous fiscal year, Larizza's office had a turnover rate of about 15 percent, ranking it sixth in the state. The year before that, 2012-13, Larizza's office again finished with the second highest turnover rate in the state at 22 percent, edging past the 4th Circuit, in the Jacksonville area, by a fraction.

Larizza, whose office prosecutes cases in Volusia, Flagler, St. Johns and Putnam counties, said it's a common case.

"This has been a problem in all 20 circuits throughout the state of Florida for years," Larizza said.

Larizza said the office hires quality people and they get hired away by higher offers from private firms. One example Larizza cited was Kayla Hathaway who left the office for a job with Rice & Rose.

"Our turnover rate is what it is. I"m very comfortable with how we treat our employees. We try to create a good environment where folks can be successful," Larizza said.

Others have become judges or gone on to the Attorney General's Office, he said. Larizza said about eight prosecutors have become judges.

It's tough to retain prosecutors in part because they can make more money in the private sector, Larizza said. The starting salary at the State Attorney's Office is $40,000 and the Legislature has not approved raises since 2006. The State Attorney's Office has a $17,485,400 budget. The office has 211 employees, including 84 lawyers.

To help keep prosecutors' legal skills sharp, Larizza's office holds regular training, like a recent workshop that drew prosecutors from across the circuit to the jury assembly room at the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center in Bunnell.

"As prosecutors, you have a personal responsibility and a professional responsibility to make sure that you do everything you can to stay on top of the changes in the law, as well as us providing that to you," Larizza told the group of prosecutors arrayed before him like an oversize jury. "When you have to come back and tell a family member or a victim that the case got reversed and it's something that you said or did, not only does that have financial repercussions, not only does it have repercussions on the system itself, but think about the personal consequences."

After Larizza's opening remarks, Jason Lewis, who oversees operations in St. Johns, Putnam and Flagler counties and supervises the homicide units, presented a slide show of courtroom fails, such as calling the defendant a liar or worse.

"Do not call the defendant a young Mr. Hitler," said Lewis, eliciting some laughs. Lewis said that mistake was made in a South Florida case by a seasoned prosecutor who typically made the best closing arguments he had ever heard.

Comments like those threaten convictions, adding pressure to the job of a prosecutor.

The 5th District Court of Appeal earlier this year, while hearing an aggravated child abuse appeal, warned prosecutors to watch what they say. It cited three cases from the 7th Circuit.

"Though we are affirming the conviction and sentence, we remain troubled by the number of cases that continue to come before this court involving improper argument by prosecutors," the court said.

Larizza said in the phone interview that the battle to retain prosecutors is not helped by the budget. The Legislature provides state attorney's offices less than a half percent of the overall state budget. This year, Larizza's office received $70,000 on top of his budget which is enough to fund one entry level position of $40,000.

"It was disappointing a little bit, what the Legislature did this year," Larizza said.

Prosecutors leave the office for various reasons. Some have become judges or have gone into higher-paying jobs at private firms, and some took jobs at the Attorney General's Office, Larizza said.

And when a prosecutor leaves, Larizza said that he sometimes doesn't fill a position so the money from that salary can go to raises. For example, when Bob Mathis retired from his $110,000-a-year job in October 2014, his post was not filled and the money went toward raises, Larizza said.

The office will see the retirement of Ed Davis, one of its longtime homicide prosecutors, next month. But his position will be filled because of the caseload in homicide, said spokesman Spencer Hathaway of the 7th Circuit.

While the pay is lower than some attorneys earn in private practice, health insurance is very inexpensive, Larizza said. An attorney can also have the balance of their student loan forgiven if they stay at the office for 10 years, said Larizza, who is vice president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

Prosecutors just can't afford to not look for another job, said Glenn Hess, the State Attorney for the 14th Judicial Circuit in the Panhandle and president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association. Many prosecuting attorneys have school loans to pay back and are trying to start families, Hess said. They also make strong job candidates in other legal areas.

"At the end of three years they have a lot of courtroom trial experience," Hess said. "They have more trial experience at the end of three years than many trial attorneys get in 20 years."

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