With the ink finally dry on this year’s biennial 2019-2021 budget, Governor Evers and the Republican-controlled legislature made a major, historic investment that the State Bar believes will begin to address the systemic issues plaguing our state’s justice system.
For several years, the State Bar of Wisconsin has been reporting on the constitutional crisis developing in the realm of indigent criminal defense, brought on by a shortage of attorneys willing and able to take on such cases. Fueling this crisis was the low hourly rate paid to private bar attorneys who handle about 40% of all public defense cases statewide. For nearly 25 years, that rate remained stagnant at $40 per hour, eventually earning Wisconsin the unenviable title of the lowest private bar rate in the nation.
As the years wore on and inflation increased overhead costs, the rate became a major disincentive to attorneys to take public defense cases, particularly in rural parts of the state where few attorneys practice and travel times, compensated at $25 per hour, can make up a large portion of time spent on a case.
Beginning January 2020, for the first time since 1995, the private bar rate will increase, from $40 to $70 per hour. This substantial investment by the state is thanks to the tireless advocacy of the State Public Defender’s office and its hardworking staff along with hundreds of stakeholders throughout the justice system. These advocates encouraged a growing critical mass of lawmakers to coalesce around a comprehensive agenda of criminal justice reform as a fiscal priority this year.
Along with the private bar rate, this budget includes funding for up to 2% salary increases for state public defenders and Department of Justice staff. It addresses the prosecutorial side of the criminal justice system by providing up to 2% salary increases and one-step pay progression for eligible assistant district attorneys, and provides funding and authorization for nearly 65 new prosecutor positions around the state. The Governor’s veto pen eliminated earmarks that allocated those 65 positions to specific counties, but didn’t change the total amount of funding and positions. The budget also maintains civil legal aid funding of $1 million over the biennium, and keeps in place existing restrictions that require those funds to be spent only on survivors of domestic violence and abuse. While the State Bar is concerned about disparities in pay between prosecutors and defenders that this budget creates with one-sided pay progression, continued advocacy and education from those in the legal profession will help lawmakers find a workable solution.
While it is important to acknowledge and celebrate these gains, there is much more work to be done. Close monitoring of the impacts of the rate increase will be necessary to determine the full impact and whether additional increases may be warranted. The State Bar continues to support efforts to provide student loan debt relief for attorneys practicing in rural communities, to achieve meaningful expungement reform, to return 17 year-olds to juvenile court jurisdiction and to make modifications to the use of cash bail. The work continues. But, please take a minute to celebrate progress! Contact your elected officials today and let them know that you appreciate a budget that reaffirms the constitutional right to justice.