I encourage more lawyers to run for public office. Any public office. I know, I know. The pay is lousy, the hours terrible, and the intrusion on private life may be too much to handle in this political era – the job seems thankless.
Lawyers have direct experience in how legislation affects the Wisconsin criminal justice system, but today those laws are being written largely by nonlawyers. Wisconsin spends more than $1.1 billion annually on the Department of Corrections. Add another $500 million for county jails. Staggering numbers. We spend $38,000 per inmate per year. We imprison more than 23,000 people, an increase of 677 percent since 1978. The state population has grown in the low double digits in the same period. Has society fundamentally gotten worse, or have the state’s policies of being tough on crime tipped the scales? Maybe some of both.
Even with increased advocacy by State Bar members on issues of importance to the profession, we were unable to advance some key issues. The pilot program allowing private attorneys to receive tuition relief by taking 50 or more Public Defender assigned cases in a county in which the population is 25,000 or less stalled. The “Second Chance” legislation did not move forward. While these issues were sidelined, the legislature at the end of the session added $350 million for the construction of a new adult prison and 54 additional prosecutors in 40 counties. However, the legislature failed to provide a necessary increase to the private bar reimbursement rate, nor did it address the fundamental problems of why we lock up so many people.
I started my year in office thinking we would make a difference. I now realize that making progress on these issues is like watching a glacier move. Along the way, we get buried in avalanches of ill-conceived legislation, impeding progress.
Has society fundamentally gotten worse, or have the state’s policies of being tough on crime tipped the scales? Maybe some of both.
If you are of a mind that something needs to be done to advance our great state and its institutions, consider attending “Lawyers as Political Leaders: Engaging with Campaigns and Holding Office,” a session at the Annual Meeting & Conference in Lake Geneva on Thursday, June 21. Learn from lawyers who hold or held public office, from both sides of the aisle. They will share their experiences running for office as a practicing lawyer, ethical considerations of fundraising, conflicts of interest, how to transition to being an elected official, and what it takes to campaign and get elected. They will address how to practice law while campaigning and holding office.
Lawyers can make a difference with their training and knowledge. It doesn’t matter if you are an “R,” “D,” or “I”; step up. Please.
Is anybody out there reading this column? Attend the AMC program. Explore the opportunity, maybe throw your hat in the ring – I implore you.