Feb. 17, 2023 – Wisconsin’s criminal justice system is facing a watershed moment. Mounting staff vacancies, salaries that have not kept up with the job market and rural attorney shortages have created a strain that, if left unaddressed, could create a breaking point in the system. The vacancy and turnover rates in these offices over the past few years are eye opening—almost 59 percent of state prosecutors have left jobs as assistant district attorneys in the last decade and the State Public Defender Office has seen a 21-percent vacancy 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.
The State Bar of Wisconsin leadership has been vocal about ongoing funding concerns in our District Attorney and State Public Defender offices and pledge to work with all political parties and leaders to address this concern and find much-needed funding solutions.
The starting point on addressing the funding concerns begins with the state biennial budget. On Feb. 15, Governor Evers presented his over $103 billion spending plan in an address to the State Legislature. The state’s coffers have been bolstered by a historically high $7 billion surplus, which has already created a buzz of transformative funding or taxing changes in the State Capitol. The Governor’s budget will likely receive a tepid response by the Republican controlled Joint Finance Committee and legislature.
Focus on Staff Funding for Criminal Justice System
While the budget process will have many twists and turns over the next four months of deliberation, the Governor highlighting and approving the proposed budgets for District Attorneys, the State Public Defender’s Office and the court system provides a welcome affirmation of what is needed to fix the funding issues.
A few of the Governor’s proposals include:
Raising the minimum rate of pay for assistant and deputy district attorneys and state public defenders to $35 per hour and pay progression of one step on the salary scale
Private Bar rate increase to $100 per hour for casework and an increase to $50 per hour for travel
Funding for 44.90 new assistant district attorney positions and funding for 50 new staff support positions for public defenders
Additional funding to expand four circuit court branches as approved by
2019 Wisconsin Act 184
$62 Million of Civil Aid Funding Proposed
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.
The State Bar is strongly supportive of Governor Evers’ proposal to increase funding for civil legal needs by $60 million in general purpose revenue and an additional $2 million of TANF funding. The funding would be allocated to the Wisconsin Trust Account Foundation, Inc. to administer and provide grants. 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.
Other State Bar Supported Policies Included
The budget 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:
Recommends a pilot program for counties to implement pre-trial risk assessment systems
Adopts language on criminal record expungement
Raises age on juvenile court jurisdiction to 18
Expands Treatment Alternatives and Diversion programs
Pay Progression for Assistant Attorneys General
Reimburses Counites for services to crime victims and witnesses
Legislative Review Next Step in Budget Process
The Republican leadership in both the Assembly and Senate quickly dismissed the Governor’s proposal and even indicated before the address that they will draft their own budget over the coming months. 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 state funding of the criminal and civil legal system by using the
Advocacy Network. Pre-written email messages are editable to suit your own thoughts and opinions, and will help to demonstrate the breadth of support for policies that prioritize access to justice.
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