May 16, 2023 – Over the last few months, the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC) heard messages from hundreds of State Bar members regarding issues in the criminal justice system, often centered around staff funding and vacancies, noting salaries have not kept pace with inflation or the current job market. That grassroots advocacy made a significant impact on Tuesday, May 16 as the JFC voted unanimously to fund increases across the board to the system.
The vacancy and turnover rates in both district attorney and public defender offices in recent years are shocking—almost 59% of state prosecutors have left jobs as assistant district attorneys in the last decade and the State Public Defender Office has seen upward of a 20% vacancy rate just in the last fiscal year. The private bar rate, which was increased to $70 in 2020, did little to increase appointments as the rate is not adjusted for inflation and is not even enough to cover most attorneys’ overhead costs.
Staff Will Receive Huge Boost for Criminal Justice System
Cale Battles, is a government relations coordinator with the State Bar of Wisconsin. He can be reached by
email, or by phone at (608) 250-6077.
To address the ongoing staffing issues in the system, a coalition of district attorneys, state prosecutors, the State Public Defender's office and the courts worked together to address the issue collectively. State Bar leadership also engaged in the debate through grassroots advocacy and media advocacy. Those efforts can be seen at JusticeBreakingPoint.com.
This joint effort culminated in JFC supporting many of the justice system’s budget initiatives. The committee’s bipartisan proposals included:
- Increasing the starting hourly pay for new assistant district attorneys and state public defenders to $36 an hour;
- Approving salary adjustments and pay progression for assistant district attorneys and state public defenders by $8.76 an hour;
- Increasing the private bar rate to $100 per hour with an increase in travel reimbursement to $50; and
- Funding for four additional circuit court branches and funding for cybersecurity initiatives for the court
State Bar Leadership Responds to Committee Action
President Margaret W. Hickey (Milwaukee), President-elect Dean R. Dietrich (Wausau), and Past President Cheryl Furstace Daniels (Madison) thanked legislators after the vote for their support of the criminal justice system. In summary, the elected leadership said the following:
“The State Bar would like to commend and thank the members of the Joint Finance Committee for today’s unanimous and bipartisan support of the criminal justice system. These investments are critical to address an ongoing need to recruit and retain experienced prosecutors and defenders through all levels of our system.”
The statement went on to say:
“Hundreds of our members reached out to their elected officials to express their support for these initiatives. The State Bar will continue to be engaged and involved in finding and supporting bipartisan solutions that improve our justice system. Attracting and retaining the dedicated professionals that work every day to provide a fair and equitable legal system for all citizens results in a better Wisconsin.”
Legislature’s Review of Budget Continues
It is important to note that while the JFC vote is an important step, they will continue to vote on various agency budgets over the next few weeks. Once the committee voting phase is over the budget will then move to each legislative chamber for an additional review and legislative vote. The final product will then move to Governor Evers’ desk likely in late June when he will either sign, conduct line item vetoes or veto the whole product.
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