An already-concerning exodus of prosecutors in the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office has been compounding in recent months, with departures accelerating, caseloads expanding and inexperienced attorneys being propelled into crucial roles that in previous years would be held by more seasoned litigators.
On its website, the State’s Attorney’s Office says it has more than 200 prosecutors. In October, the office said it had 164 prosecutors.
But according to a roster developed by The Baltimore Banner and cross-checked with multiple people with knowledge of the agency, the office will soon be down to fewer than 135 prosecutors. Zy Richardson, spokeswoman for the State’s Attorney’s Office, said officials were still working Monday to count the number of prosecutors on staff. She said they will not share their number ahead of a hearing on the office budget. She declined to comment further.
“The attrition rate is catastrophic. And no one outside of the office seems to be aware,” said one prosecutor, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello learned of the issue and sent a letter on May 19 to the State’s Attorney’s Office, asking it to provide information about budgeted positions and vacancies before the June 6 hearing. The State’s Attorney’s Office’s allocation from the city budget is set to rise 13 percent from two years ago, to $39.6 million.
“It is my understanding that several of these prosecutorial units are currently understaffed for supervisors and [Assistant State’s Attorneys] by more than 50 percent,” he wrote, citing among them the Gun Violence Enforcement Division, or GVED.
The GVED unit was created in 2016 as a way to harness resources around non-fatal shootings and other gun crimes. It originally had nine assistant state’s attorneys, one assigned to each police district, and was led by a deputy and a chief with two law clerks, working with an embedded squad of police consisting of four detectives, sources said.
Rocked by departures, the unit now has four assistant state’s attorneys and one chief, working with two detectives. None of the prosecutors have more than five years on the job. And none have successfully tried a shooting case.
“We need to make sure we have the appropriate numbers of supervisors and line ASAs in order to prosecute the cases that BPD [Baltimore Police Department] is bringing to the table,” Costello said at a City Hall news conference May 19. In an interview afterward, he wondered if the vacancies might have led to a budget surplus that needs to be accounted for — or even returned to city coffers.
Officials in the State’s Attorney’s Office have acknowledged that they’ve struggled to compete with higher pay and lighter caseloads in surrounding counties and private practice. The workload for prosecutors has been further exacerbated by the backlog of criminal cases that developed when the courts closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Banner spoke with 10 current and former prosecutors from the office who say the issue is more complex than that. Nearly all requested anonymity for fear or retaliation or because their new employers would not want them to speak out.
“I would have stayed here for less money and with less quality of life than I’d get in another jurisdiction,” said a recently departed prosecutor. “But this office has turned into such a circus. Caseload and trial schedule is just not sustainable, and that’s relative to the crazy caseload and schedule that we had before COVID and before everyone with any experience quit.”
The practical effect is that prosecutors are unable to properly prep for cases and keep victims apprised of a case’s progress. Some say deals are cut, more than before, “to make [a case] go away.” “This is where it becomes a public safety issue,” one former prosecutor said.
Lisa Goldberg spent 31 years with the office and retired in January as the chief of the homicide unit. She believes problems started during the prior administration of Gregg L. Bernstein, who led the office from 2010 to 2014. She says he brought a white-collar approach to the office and demanded more of prosecutors.
More recently, she says the office has not kept pace with salaries and there’s been a reduction in support staff and resources. Others said the decision to strip away comp time during the pandemic, which has not been reinstated, irked staff as well.
“Before it was a hurricane,” Goldberg said of the pressures. “Now it’s a tsunami.”
To be sure, the office’s departures are not strictly due to caseloads or pay. One prosecutor, La Zette Ringgold-Kirksey, recently departed because she was appointed to the bench. Michael Schatzow, who held the No. 2 position under State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby since day one of her tenure, retired at age 73. Departing line-level prosecutors have left for jobs with other agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Several others have taken positions with the Attorney General’s Office.
Mosby and her team said last fall they were seeking to boost salaries by a total of nearly $600,000 and encouraging prosecutors to work from home two days a week. Mosby negotiated some of that money from City Hall, and planned to cut vacant jobs at the District Courts to come up with the rest.
Those who spoke to the Banner said the level of experience in the office has sunk to an alarming level and the continued departures have been compounding the problems.
Two formerly signature units barely exist. Bernstein created a Major Investigations Unit to develop complex cases. The unit had 12 line prosecutors and a supervisor; there are currently two prosecutors and no supervisor. Law enforcement agencies for years have been taking cases that might have gone through MIU in the past to the Attorney General’s Office, which has been beefing up its criminal prosecutions arm.
Mosby created a Crime Strategies Unit in 2015, based on a model in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, to use data and technology and work with law enforcement to develop intelligence about crime. There is only one prosecutor staffing the initiative today.
One departed prosecutor, who did not want to be identified because her current employer would not want her speaking out, made clear she joined the office ready to carry out Mosby’s mission and did not have an issue with her politics. She and others did not cite Mosby’s looming criminal case — she is facing trial on federal perjury charges — as a factor in deciding to leave, either.
“The office has done a good job with making sure defendants are getting just results as opposed to just convictions,” the former prosecutor said. “I think you’ll get more complaints from victims. Because dockets so heavy, because lack of outreach to victims, cases come and go.”
Goldberg said the homicide unit prosecutors are carrying caseloads of 26 or 27 cases. “There’s entire states that don’t have that many homicide cases,” she said.
Baltimore Banner reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.