The 6th District: An Outlier in Southwest Colorado
Cash-strapped counties, low salaries and hefty debt have turned 6th District prosecutors into the legal profession’s blue-collar workers

by Julia Cardi

Durango is the heart of Colorado’s 6th Judicial District — where the high cost of living and the county funding crunch have prosecutors often working side jobs to get by. / PHOTO: KEN LUND

Attorneys leaving law school probably don’t expect they might have to work side jobs to make ends meet or struggle to pay for expenses like childcare and car repairs. According to think tank Law School Transparency, which studies the economics of law school and the legal profession, the median salary for attorneys in private practice was $117,000 in 2017.

But Colorado’s entry-level and early-career prosecutors sometimes find themselves in very different financial circumstances, especially in the 6th Judicial District. The squeeze for resources in that district translates to low salaries that make it difficult for the attorneys to afford their law school loan payments and the cost of living in the 6th District’s home base of Durango.

Funding for the 6th District works the same way as all of Colorado’s other judicial districts, though the math might work differently. Most of Colorado’s 22 judicial districts cover a handful of counties, which provide the lion’s share of funding for DA’s offices. The state sets a mandatory minimum for the elected DAs and pays 80% of his or her salary. Everyone else working in the office is paid at the office’s discretion.

Skepticism from lawmakers has hampered a group of bills to increase contributions from the state in the past several years. There have been a few attempts to expand a district attorney fellowship program that currently funds the salaries of up to six law graduates to work in rural prosecutors’ offices for a year. Other past bills have sought to use state funds for prosecutors similar to how the public defenders are paid.

But stripping away the politics and possibilities of what could be done with state funding still leaves a district whose current financial situation mirrors the struggle for resources Colorado’s rural counties often face.

Stagnant funding isn’t because of a lack of empathy from county commissioners: All parts of the counties need resources they just don’t have. The 6th District’s rank-and-file prosecutors are caught in the middle with salaries among some of the lowest of Colorado’s judicial districts. They have found themselves working side jobs, struggling to pay for housing and childcare and, in one case, homeless.

To read this and other complete articles featured in the Dec. 2, 2019 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.