March 6, 2012 – A bipartisan bill intended to retain experienced prosecutors by improving their compensation unanimously passed the Wisconsin Senate today, as the body heads toward the adjournment of its regular session in mid-March.
Senate Bill 394 establishes a pay progression program for assistant district attorneys (ADAs), but does not fund it in the current biennium, leaving that issue for a future Legislature to address in the next state budget starting July 1, 2013.
The Legislature's current session for regular business is scheduled to adjourn no later than March 15, 2012. This gives legislators limited time to complete work on the bill and send it to the governor for his approval. Once it adjourns, the Legislature is not expected to return for regular business until January 2013.
Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Rep. Michelle Litjens (R-Oshkosh) authored the bill, which received a public hearing in the Assembly Committee (Assembly Bill 488) on Criminal Justice and Corrections in Feb. 9 and was unanimously approved by that committee on Feb. 16. The Senate Judiciary Committee gave SB 394 a hearing on Feb. 16 and unanimously approved it Feb. 27.
At the hearings, the bill was supported by the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association, the Association of State Prosecutors, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association. State Public Defender Kelli S. Thompson also testified in support of the bill.
The State Bar of Wisconsin also supports the legislation.
On Feb. 15, legislators introduced bills to create a similar pay progression system for assistant state public defenders, who generally are on the same pay scale as assistant district attorneys. Those bills, Senate Bill 479 and Assembly Bill 648 have been referred respective Senate and Assembly committees but have yet to be scheduled for a public hearing.
Funding crisis has long history
In 1989, ADAs were made state employees and were paid under a stepped system that moved employees along a pay scale in accordance with the number of years worked. However, in 2002, pay progression was eliminated.
According to an October 2011 study released by the University of Wisconsin-Madison's LaFollette School of Public Affairs, 246 of Wisconsin’s 330 ADAs left their jobs between 2001 and 2007. The overall annual turnover rate for ADAs since 1990 has been 15.6 percent, but since 2000 it increased to 17.2 percent and since 2005 it has increased to 18.4 percent. According to the bill's sponsors, nearly 10 percent of the ADAs statewide have resigned in the past year. However, the number of criminal cases filed in Wisconsin from 2001 to 2006 rose dramatically – felony cases increased 16.2 percent and overall criminal caseloads increased by 11.5 percent, according to legislators.
Five years ago, a 2007 state audit revealed that Wisconsin at that time had 117 fewer prosecutors than needed to adequately handle the increasing number of criminal cases referred to district attorneys by local police. The audit showed that between 2002 and 2006, the number of prosecutors in the state dropped 4.4 percent while the number of cases referred for prosecution increased 11.5 percent. The 2007 audit concluded that Wisconsin had 27 percent fewer assistant district attorneys than it needed at that time and that 63 of 72 counties were understaffed.
Continue to monitor WisBar.org and visit the State Bar's Government Relations page for updated information on these issues.
By Adam Korbitz
, Government Relations Coordinator, State Bar of Wisconsin
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