Feb. 26, 2021 - Governor Tony Evers delivered his “Badger Bounce Back” budget plan to the Wisconsin legislature last week. The $91 billion spending plan contains many potential large scale reforms, none more evident than in the area of criminal justice. While many of these reforms have wide and bipartisan support, they will likely receive scrutiny by the Republican controlled Joint Finance Committee and legislature.
Focus on Criminal Justice Investments and Reform
Gov. Evers indicated very early in the process that his budget proposal would focus on criminal justice reform. Almost every aspect of the system received attention in the plan. The State Bar strongly supports many of these proposals.
Cale Battles is a Government Relations Coordinator for the State Bar of Wisconsin. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6077.
If they are approved, would represent one of the largest investments to criminal justice spending in decades. After decades of zero increases in the private bar rate, last session the governor and legislature approved a needed increase to $70 an hour. The governor’s proposal would build on that increase by annually indexing the private bar rate to the same percentage as the consumer price index.
District attorneys, the State Public Defender’s Office and the court system will also see benefits from the governor’s plan. Additional assistant district attorney positions were included as well as important increases in merit pay progression for both public defenders and assistant and deputy district attorneys to increase the ability to keep experienced and needed attorneys in these positions. The court system received funding to expand four circuit court branches as approved by 2019 Wisconsin Act 184.
Much of what the governor proposed in the area of criminal justice reform has been around for many sessions with bipartisan support. Expungement reform and returning 17-year-olds to juvenile court jurisdiction are again included in the governor’s budget proposal. For many years, both issues have been frustratingly close to a final resolution, only to be caught up in partisanship or competing ideas. The State Bar is hopeful that the governor’s support, along with strong legislative support from both political sides, will bring new focus to these important reforms.
Civil Legal Funding Will Help State Citizens Recover from Pandemic
The State Bar of Wisconsin has long advocated for state funding to provide assistance for civil legal services to those in need. In the last three biennial budgets, the legislature allocated a total of $1 million in funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program for legal services to TANF-eligible survivors of domestic violence & sexual assault. While these funds have gone a long way assisting residents with legal representation when they are most in need, it is still woefully short of what is necessary to bridge the state’s justice gap. This justice gap has never been more evident than now, as citizens are trying to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state is already facing a very publicized and well-documented unemployment backlog, which is only exacerbating other problems that many Wisconsin citizens will likely face, from housing, bankruptcy, child support issues, and more.
The State Bar is strongly supportive of Gov. Evers’ proposal to increase funding for civil legal needs by $4 million in general purpose revenue and an additional $1 million of TANF funding. Investment in civil legal aid is a wise investment for Wisconsin: for every $1 invested, Wisconsin’s civil legal aid providers obtain $10 for their low-income clients in the form of child support, security deposits, jobs obtained, and more. Beyond that is savings in the court system where courts can operate more efficiently or issues can be resolved without court intervention. The governor’s proposal also removes restrictions to what services can be provided and on funding caps to TANF funds. This expansion will allow civil legal services to be targeted to more needs like elder abuse prevention, veteran’s benefits and continued domestic violence services.
Increases in Broadband and Other State Bar Supported Policies
The one area of the budget that all parties agree on is broadband internet expansion and infrastructure. Lack of reliable broadband access in rural areas has been especially difficult during the shift to more remote work during the pandemic. The State Bar strongly supports increased funding as the court system and rural attorneys need faster broadband access in order for the judicial system to work more efficiently. Electronic filing and appearances through video are likely only going to continue to grow, but without critical infrastructure investments, rural areas will be left behind.
Additional Items of Note
The governor’s proposal in bill form is over 1,800 pages. It is nearly impossible to highlight every detail that might impact attorneys or specific areas of law. Below are just some of the additional items of note to State Bar members:
Prohibits use of restraints on anyone under the age of 18 when in court, unless the court finds the restraints are needed.
Raises minimum age of delinquency from 10 years to 12 years.
Expands the earned release program to include evidence based programs to reduce recidivism.
Reduces felony bail jumping to a misdemeanor offense.
Additional $15 million to expand Treatment Alternatives and Diversion Program.
$4 million increase to reimburse counties for crime victim and witness services.
Budget Proposal Has Long Road Ahead
It is difficult to predict when the budget will pass. Gov. Evers and legislative leaders carry over their tense and rocky relationship from the last two years. That relationship gap has only increased after ugly executive and legislative differences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost immediately after the governor’s virtual budget address, many GOP members and leaders indicated they will likely scrap most of the governor’s proposals and draft their own budget over the coming months. Additionally, many details about the legislature’s process are still being worked out including the public hearing and voting procedures.
What You Can Do: State Bar of Wisconsin Advocacy Network
State Bar members are encouraged to send a message to their lawmakers expressing support for the budget items which positively affect the legal system using the Advocacy Network. The pre-written email message is editable to suit your own thoughts and opinions, and will help to demonstrate the breadth of support for a budget that prioritizes access to justice.
You can also subscribe to the Rotunda Report and follow us on Twitter to stay informed and get involved in the legislative process.