DALLAS -- In growing examples of “extraordinary times,” the statewide labor shortage has left the Polk County prosecutor’s office understaffed.
District Attorney Aaron Felton told County Commissioners last week that his office, funded for eight attorneys, has lost two from the misdemeanor division who were recruited away by other DA offices. He said short term, the remaining staff can cover the shortfall. But it does create a problem long term.
“We do not at this point have anyone hired to take over those spots,” Felton said. “Long term, I don’t see anyone in the pipeline. So, we are very thin in how we are going to be able to deal with those caseloads. We have trials covered in the near future. We are making contingency plans on how to deal with the intake.”
Felton said these are extraordinary times where DA offices around the region are experiencing the same hiring problem.
“Without naming other counties, a small county got one applicant for one position, and I was surprised to hear a large county got two applicants for two openings. A large county usually gets a lot of applicants,” Felton said.
“I don’t think we’re alone. I know a lot of other industries are challenged with the same issue. It’s an extraordinary time in terms of meeting demand. Because, I don’t mean to sound crass, but I don’t think those who are committing crimes are not fully staffed right now,” Felton added.
Felton said the problem with covering for the manning shortage with the remaining, more experienced attorneys isn’t within the courtroom or at trial. Rather, it’s with caseloads.
“I have one misdemeanor attorney that has approximately 190 open cases on his caseload right now,” Felton said. “Trials are not necessarily a statistic of how busy somebody is. It’s how many cases are you pushing through the pipeline - charging, negotiating, appearing in court, following up with a police officer, talking to grand jurors, all these steps in a case. A trial would be just one of them.”
Felton assured the commissioners his office is doing what it can to meet public safety needs. However, Board Chair Craig Pope expressed worries that the state is not emphasizing the workforce shortage amidst the pandemic, especially when it comes to hiring professions.
“I continue to remind folks, these problems aren’t unique to the lower end skillsets. This is across all skillsets. But especially, I shared it yesterday with Regional Solutions coordinator, this is a huge challenge, even for lawyers, which none of us would ever anticipate,” Pope said. “If we’re looking at opportunities for assistance, I’m reminding the state that if we’re going to pump money into workforces challenges, we need to look at the whole spectrum.”
Pope wanted to know if the state even had a pool of prosecutors to tap in times of shortages.
Felton said his DA’s office has received help with big, individual cases, such as a recent sex abuse case out of Independence. However, he said the state’s Criminal Justice Division turned him down to when inquiring about assisting in misdemeanor cases.
“That was years ago. I’m not sure any answer (today) would be different,” Felton said. “Bread and butter cases - DUIs, DUSs, conduct types of cases – that’s not their type of cases. They’re highly specialized type of attorneys, sex abuse, homicide, which can take over in the case of an absent district attorney, which they do.
“So, short answer is not really. We’ve never had pipeline issues that are this broad throughout the state. Even in offices that have a good pipeline of applicants.”
Felton said one of the problems in the current hiring environment is DA offices are feeding on their own.
“We’re poaching on one another’s attorneys. That’s what happened in our case. Frankly, I’ve done it, because we have no choice. That’s where good applicants are coming from,” he said.
Another problem is overcoming the negative perception of working as a prosecutor among newly graduated law students, especially within smaller counties. But a preference toward the defense bar isn’t always accurate, he added.
“The specter of the loans that law students have are so high, the salaries for offices, smaller counties and large cities, having hard time paying off obligations, factors in as well,” Felton explained.
Felton plans to research why law students are choosing one career path over the other and talk with career centers to help his office rethink its recruiting efforts. He added he’s been in public safety almost his entire career and still thinks it’s a rewarding vocation.
“This is a great profession for young people to enter into. You get trial experience right away, you get to work with great law enforcement people right here in Polk County,” Felton said. “Public safety is a good, good career choice coming out of law school. Because you get to put your skills to use right away. Being in a smaller office like ours, you get to do it really quickly. You get good mentoring, good supervision and learn to be good trial lawyer.”