HANCOCK COUNTY — The story wasn’t a pleasant one to share, prosecutor Brent Eaton said. Still, the event was one he said he needed to relay to county officials who, along with state officials, hold the pursestrings on salaries for deputy prosecutors and other staff.
Eaton settled in front of the the Hancock County Budget, Efficiency and Revenue Committee in early January and shared his story in hopes of making positive changes in the office.
The prosecutor’s office has an opening for a deputy prosecutor, Eaton said, one of many he’s had in 2022, and recently he tried to fill the position. Eaton made an offer to the top candidate only to have the prospective hire turn it down, telling Eaton they could make at least $20,000 more per year working elsewhere.
“The person basically laughed at our offer,” Eaton said. “We’re not competitive.”
Prosecutor’s offices nationwide are struggling, Eaton told the group of county officials who gathered recently to start the discussions on future county budgets. Eaton noted that prosecutors in Indiana, like the rest of the nation, are experiencing attorney shortages, excessive workloads and limited financial resources. Eaton said Indiana is at a public safety tipping point.
“Our needs are great,” Eaton said.
The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council (IPAC) commissioned a statewide study on the issue over the last few years. That report has been completed with statewide recommendations for the number of attorneys it believes should be employed in each office.
Eaton is not only seeking pay increases for current employees, but he is also asking county officials to help fund 10 new employees by 2026. Eaton said the office needs at least 12 attorneys, up from a current level of eight prosecuting attorneys, an additional four paralegals, one additional victim advocate and one additional investigator.
Eaton said Indiana’s 91 elected prosecutors are also seeking the assistance of the Indiana General Assembly at a critical time in the state’s history. He noted IPAC has taken the concerns of the overall shortage of prosecutors in the state to the general assembly and will be advancing the issue in the 2023 legislative session.
There have been several options discussed but, at this time, the leading solution is the creation of a statewide prosecuting attorney’s commission, which will create a process for counties to opt-in for state reimbursement of some or all of the costs of these additional attorneys. At this time, Eaton said IPAC is optimistic the commission could be created on July 1 and then would begin to function and present counties with the option of opting-in beginning in July 2024.
“At this time, the only information I have is that the commission would reimburse a portion of the costs of new deputy prosecutors and not the costs of the support staff needed,” Eaton said.
The issue is not just about getting more attorneys but also making sure the ones he has on staff stay after stating he had an estimated 75% turnover rate in 2022. Eaton noted the going rate for a prosecuting attorney around the state is about $80,000, depending on skill set and experience. His office, however, only has the funding to pay attorneys at a lower rate around $70,000.
Eaton noted there is a ton of work outside of simply filing cases and going into the courtroom, including on-call work on weekends and at night. He also stated many employees are working well beyond their 40 hours a week without proper compensation.
In a memo from Eaton sent to the county officials, he stated, “Hancock County is one of the state’s most rapidly growing communities and borders a city with one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. These numbers are needed for the ongoing level of public safety that we enjoy.”
After hearing from Eaton, county officials decided to put together a study group composed of council members Keely Butrum, Jeannine Gray and Mary Noe to look further into Eaton’s requests.
“What I’d like to see is for us to find a way to keep things competitive so we don’t have turnover,” Noe said.
The study group will take some time to delve into the needs at the prosecutor’s office, looking into the pay issue as well as staff turnover which Gray noted is extremely high.
“I’m sure that they have a need and we know we never have enough help in several different departments in the county as we learned about this when we took this journey with the Sheriff’s Department,” Gray said. “But, that turnover rate at the prosecutor’s office speaks volumes to me and we need to look into that.”
County residents deserve a top-notch prosecutor’s office, Gray said, and she feels the group tasked with looking into the request will to its due diligence to make sure that happens.