Legal professionals around the state are hoping that when budget negotiations end, Wisconsin’s legal system will get some relief.
In the budget he unveiled Feb. 28, Gov. Tony Evers took some steps to address underfunded district attorney’s offices and staff public defender positions.
If approved, the budget would put in place a pay progression in those states.
His proposal would also raise the rate paid to private bar lawyers for public defender work to $70 per hour, up from $40 an hour — the lowest rate in the nation and one that hasn’t changed since it was reduced from $50 in 1995.
Legal groups, however, are calling for more improvements, arguing that the changes would likely not solve the problems the court system is currently facing.
The State Public Defender’s Office, Wisconsin District Attorney’s Association, Association of State Prosecutors, Department of Justice and Director of State Court’s Office collaborated on a comprehensive biennial budget proposal for 2019 to 2021 to address issues such as long wait times, lack of lawyers willing to take public defender work and talent drain.
Their proposals include pay progression for assistant district attorney positions, more assistant district attorney positions and increasing the state public defender rate.
It also includes requests for funding of crime lab staff and dedicated crime scene response team funding.
Chippewa County district attorney Wade Newell, said the requests are meant to help repair problems in a way that will correct it without unevenly affecting one area, which he said wouldn’t solve the issues faced by Wisconsinites.
“You can’t just address one part,” Newell said.
For instance, the counties are facing longer court wait times due to increased felony cases while fewer and fewer lawyers are willing to work for wages that don’t cover their overhead.
The pay progression for assistant district attorneys would help keep lawyers around when currently they have to look elsewhere, usually in private practice, for higher wages and growth.
“It ensures you get quality people who want to stay in and aren’t forced out by economic reasons every five years,” Newell said.
The costs for the reforms requested over their proposals were estimated by the requesting groups.
For instance, in the summary of the Wisconsin District Attorney’s Association and Association of State Prosecutors request, they estimated a biennial cost of $4.8 million to establish pay progression for assistant district attorneys and a cost of $7.8 million for the same period to establish new district attorney positions.
The State Public Defender’s Office estimated it should provide $16,612,700 in each year to raise public defender’s reimbursement to $100 an hour for representing indigent clients.
In June 2018, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin increased the hourly rate of reimbursement from $70 to $100 an hour effective Jan. 1, 2020, for attorneys appointed at county expense.
In summary of its request, the State Public Defender’s Office argued that without a corresponding increase in the public defender rate, the difficulty finding lawyers to work those cases would likely accelerate, “resulting in a systemic crisis for courts and significant additional costs to counties.”
Newell said that while Chippewa County did not experience this as badly, there were areas of the state where wait times could be months for an accused subject to get their constitutionally granted public defender if they couldn’t pay, resulting in victims also waiting to get cases resolved.
Newell said that at their core, the requests reflect a belief that addressing only one part of a problem won’t make the system more efficient.
“It’s been coming to this for a while,” Newell said. “It’s been getting worse.”