February 25, 2012

ONE DAY this month four murders occurred in the space of 72 hours in Prince George’s County. Like most of the county’s 105 murders in 2011, they will add to the caseload of just a handful of homicide prosecutors in one of the most short-staffed, overworked and resource-starved state’s attorney’s offices in Maryland.

Baltimore is the crime capital of Maryland; nearly twice as many people were murdered there as in Prince George’s last year. But thanks to the city’s political clout, it has also been the recipient of state and federal grants that account for 20 percent of its prosecutorial budget.

By contrast, Prince George’s, which grapples with the state’s second-highest crime burden, is an overlooked, suburban also-ran, chronically short of money and personnel to prosecute major crimes. Angela Alsobrooks, chief prosecutor in Prince George’s, oversees a budget of $14 million, representing just half a percent of the county’s overall budget. In Baltimore, the portion of the city budget devoted to prosecutions is about three times greater.

That translates into low salaries, crushing caseloads, and difficulties in recruitment and retention. Starting pay for a Prince George’s prosecutor is about $48,000, lower than in comparable jurisdictions and meager for young lawyers, many of whom graduate from law school carrying student loan debts of $150,000 or more.

Pressure is especially acute on the four full-time homicide prosecutors and their section chief in Prince George’s, each of whom juggles up to a dozen murder indictments per year, plus other cases under investigation. Burnout is a common problem, as is retention of experienced lawyers. Excluding the homicide section chief, none of the full-time homicide prosecutors in Prince George’s has more than two years of experience handling murder cases.

No one expects to get rich as a county prosecutor. Traditionally, many lawyers spend a few years doing the job, gaining valuable experience before moving on to the private sector or a U.S. attorney’s office. But when resources are as tight as they are in Prince George’s, chances increase that cases will be bungled or fall through the cracks. And there is a heightened risk that prosecutors will not be able to keep abreast of cases brought in by the county police force, which has grown by about 30 percent since the mid-2000s.

Eleven of the 89 lawyers in Ms. Alsobrooks’s office are paid for by federal and state grants, but funding for at least five of them will expire this year. A short-staffed office, especially in the area of domestic violence, is about to get stretched even thinner.

Like local governments everywhere, Prince George’s is under severe budgetary strains. But public safety must remain a priority, and the county will be hard-pressed to make gains against crime without effective prosecutions.