Freedom vs. Safety


Sarena Straus, at Prosecutor Post-Script, shares a career prosecutor’s feelings On Being a Prosecutor.

Generally speaking, prosecutors throughout the country, regardless of jurisdiction, are underpaid, overworked and underappreciated. Many of my younger prosecutors make less than their secretaries. . . .
The politicians are of no help, either. Every year they pass new laws, usually without consulting with the folks who have to enforce them, to make it appear that they’re doing something about crime. Of course, they never fund the laws they pass. . . .
But despite the deficiencies, there is still value and relevance in being one of the public’s defenders. Occasionally we still do make a difference. It still beats being a ‘defense whore’ or a Wal-Mart greeter.

Prosecutors might be misled into thinking that they don’t get paid what they deserve. This is because, just as politicians pass laws to appear law-and-order, the people are eager to shower prosecutors with adulation. Listening to the people’s adoration of prosecutors is misleading because the people are only law-and-order as long as it doesn’t cost them anything. (A criminal jury can be dangerous for this reason: twelve people get an opportunity to show their support for law enforcement and their hatred of crime, and it doesn’t cost them anything.)

But prosecutors’ pay reflects what society truly thinks they are worth. How people spend their time and money, either directly or through the government, is an expression of their values. Some people choose to buy drugs because they value oblivion. Some people choose to go to college because they value education. Some people pay criminal-defense lawyers because they value freedom.

If a prosecutor is paid less than a criminal-defense lawyer, the prosecutor may well feel underpaid, overworked, underappreciated, and generally sorry for herself — she doesn’t get paid what society tells her she is worth. But that’s the free market at work. America does not value the prosecutor’s work as much it does as the defender’s, and there’s not much point in complaining about it.

How people choose spend their money (again, directly or through the government) is affected by their perceptions. People are willing to spend their money on the war on drugs because of their perception that drugs are a danger to them (or because of their perception that they will be perceived as favoring drugs if they don’t favor the war on drugs). Anyone who expects to be paid is selling a perceived benefit. An employee of a company is selling his value to the company. A housepainter is selling the aesthetic improvement to the house. A diamond merchant is selling the perceived scarcity of a diamond.

The greater the perceived benefit, and the scarcer, the more its provider will be paid. Trash collectors don’t make quite as much as prosecutors, not because the service they provide is less valuable, but because more people can collect trash than can prosecute.

What prosecutors have to sell is the perception of a greater chance of safety. When prosecutors advertise (as, for example, when they run for office), they talk about their role in making us safer. They talk about the necessity of “doing something about crime.” When Sarena’s prosecutor talks about being “the public’s defender,” she means that she sees her role as defending people’s safety.

What criminal-defense lawyers have to sell is the perception that they provide a greater chance of freedom. When a criminal-defense lawyer talks about defending people, he means that he sees his role as defending people’s freedom.

The disparity in pay between defenders and prosecutors can’t be accounted for by the scarcity of defenders — there are more defenders than there are prosecutors. It is only the perceived value of the benefit that accounts for the difference.

(Here’s a little thought experiment: if prosecutors were free agents who only got paid for a prosecution if they had a client or patron footing the bill, would they make more or less?)

In America, it should surprise nobody that a lawyer fighting for people’s safety doesn’t make as much money as one fighting for their freedom. That is an expression of the relative values we assign to safety and freedom. 200+ years ago the people who founded this country decided that freedom was more valuable than safety.
Want proof?

Give me liberty or give me death.

Live free or die.

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

That’s the way it is, and the way it should be.


0 responses to “Freedom vs. Safety”

  1. A prosecutor who draws a few unwinnable cases in a row will still be getting a pay check when they are over.
    A defense attorney doesn’t have that assurance.
    Higher risk, higher pay in the private sector than as a government employee.

  2. Lawyers fighting for freedom make more than lawyers fighting for safety, which sounds patriotic to me. But then I think about how much money lawyers who fight for economic interests make (e.g. BigLaw), and I realize the patriotic angle on that one is a bit of a stretch.

  3. GeorgeH,

    There is higher risk in the private sector, but I don’t think it’s for the reason you describe. I know lawyers who have lost some very high-profile cases without damage to their careers.

    Anon,

    “Patriotic” is certainly the wrong word. When Patrick Henry said “give me liberty or give me death,” he was not being patriotic. Rather, he was being rebellious. It’s an expression of something larger than country.

    Money is fungible, and more easily valued than freedom or safety. A dollar is worth a dollar. Corporate lawyers are in a special position because their clients have very deep pockets. Criminal defense lawyers working for such clients make lots and lots of money too.

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