Vol. 84, No. 5, May 2011
Wisconsin’s criminal justice system is made up of multiple separate entities that depend on the funding and efficient functioning of each of the other entities; when one part of the system is unable to function, the whole system is affected. In my April column, I discussed funding of the State Public Defender Program. In this column, I address issues facing another equally important part of the system: district attorneys.
District attorneys (DAs) face significant challenges as their offices around the state continue to be inadequately staffed and underfunded. As a consequence, these offices cannot adequately protect justice and public safety, thus eroding public confidence in the criminal justice system.
A 2007 report issued by the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau showed that prosecutor positions have been cut while prosecutors’ workload has continued to rise, forcing them to spend less time on each case or even to choose which offenses to prosecute. As a result, DA offices do not have adequate time to work with victims and witnesses or with law enforcement officers. The shortage of prosecutors has negative effects on protecting crime victims and decreases the prosecution of cases that directly affect our communities.
Further exacerbating the problem is the lack of pay progression, which leads to high turnover and very few mid-level prosecutors. District attorneys and their assistants are not eligible for merit or experience-based pay, which has encouraged attorneys with mid-level experience to leave these positions in search of higher salaries. Thus, DA offices are staffed by a small number of highly experienced attorneys and a large number of recently hired attorneys, with nearly no one in the middle. The inability to retain mid-level assistant DAs has a real cost to the state. Inexperienced prosecutors spend more time processing and evaluating cases, making it difficult to resolve them quickly and tying up valuable court time. In addition, inexperienced prosecutors may lack knowledge of the nuances of the rules of evidence; as a result, they may make decisions about charging based on possibly erroneous assumptions regarding what constitutes admissible evidence. This in turn may lead to the release of guilty parties or the charging of individuals even though the evidence will not support a conviction. Ensuring that DA offices can retain assistant DAs with an adequate level of experience will help ensure that the constitutional rights of our citizens are protected.
This situation creates a crisis for the criminal justice system and thus for the state, as it is becomes increasingly difficult to safeguard the constitutional rights of victims and the accused and to protect public safety. Although I can voice my opinion and make suggestions regarding the problems facing key components of the criminal justice system, the real long-term solution must come from the state.
The governor has taken a step in the right direction in his proposed biennial state budget by providing $1 million annually to increase retention of experienced assistant DAs in each year of the biennium. However, for the criminal justice system to function effectively the state must be willing to fund all the essential parts of the system. By ensuring the DA offices around the state are adequately staffed and funded, we are creating a more efficient and effective criminal justice system. Chief Justice Abrahamson recently stated, “Justice is the business of government,” and I completely agree. The legislature has a constitutional obligation to fund the criminal justice system so that all parts may function together effectively to protect the public and restore confidence in our justice system.