Vol. 84, No. 4, April 2011
State Bar government relations team members meet with President Jim Boll to discuss access to justice issues, including chronic underfunding of Wisconsin’s state public defender indigent-defense assigned-counsel program. From left (front) Lisa Roys and Jim Boll; (back) Adam Korbitz, Margaret Porco, Cale Battles, and Sandy Lonergan.
The opportunity to receive a fair trial when charged with a crime is among the most fundamental constitutional safeguards built into our justice system. But for nearly 145,000 Wisconsin residents who cannot afford legal representation, that guarantee is secured only by a public defender program that is chronically underfunded and badly in need of review.
Wisconsin’s public defender program relies on both staff attorneys and assigned counsel to handle this caseload. In 2009, about 62 percent of all Wisconsin cases were assigned to staff attorneys; the remaining 38 percent were handled by attorneys in private practice. Under current Wisconsin law, the state pays private attorneys $40 an hour for representing indigent criminal defendants. This is the same amount Wisconsin paid private attorneys for these services 15 years ago and only $5 more per hour than the original rate established in 1978. Today, it is the lowest such hourly rate in the nation.
This situation poses two fundamental questions:
• Does the current rate of pay for assigned counsel of indigent defendants adversely affect the quality of representation?
• What is the appropriate rate of pay for assigned counsel for the indigent in Wisconsin?
The State Bar of Wisconsin supports the efforts of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (WACDL) to provide definitive answers to both issues by commissioning a study that will answer these questions using national standards to assess budgetary, caseload, and performance indicators for Wisconsin’s indigent-defense assigned-counsel program.
The findings of this study will be the foundation for a comprehensive public education campaign that will clarify the crucial contributions made by assigned counsel in protecting the constitutional rights of Wisconsin residents.
The goal of the study is to produce the information we need to succeed in a challenging budgetary environment. Just as important, it will focus public attention on the often misunderstood role criminal defense lawyers play in our justice system. But the State Bar and WACDL cannot do this alone. More voices are needed to ignite the passion of all our members, because if Wisconsin lawyers do not stand up for the constitutional rights of individuals, who will?
Over my next 18 months in State Bar leadership positions, I will be working with WACDL, other State Bar past presidents, and executive director George Brown to raise funds for this important and necessary study.
If you would like to donate for funding of this study or are interested in assisting in fundraising, please contact George Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I stated when I was sworn in as president of the State Bar, “If the State Bar president doesn’t stand for the constitutional rights of our citizens and stand with public defenders as well as those of the State Bar that do this important criminal defense work, I don’t know what the State Bar president should stand for.”