There is as yet no talk of improving funding for our justice system in the upcoming legislative session. The issue is not that there is no money; the issue is one of priorities.
Now that the fall election is over, it is time to attend to the upcoming legislative session. Governor Walker is beginning to roll out his administration’s priorities for the next two years and, at least as of this writing in late November, there has been no dialogue regarding the lack of funding for the state’s justice system.
Tax collections are up; enough that the governor placed more than $100 million into the state’s rainy day fund as the state announced that it ended the fiscal year with a $342 million surplus. This is at a time when the state is failing to properly reimburse private practice attorneys who take public defender cases. Many of these attorneys are small business owners who incur major losses when they are not paid for their time, effort, and legal research. Yet they continue to work at the abysmally low rate of $40 per hour (one of the lowest rates in the country) to ensure the Constitutional due process rights of all Wisconsinites.
According to a September 2012 memo from the State Public Defender (SPD) to the Department of Administration and the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance, the private bar budget line in the SPD budget “may carry a structural deficit of $6.0 million into the 2013-2015 biennium” (emphasis added). This creates a major challenge for the SPD’s office, which has been forced to hold open staff attorney positions to meet budget lapse requirements passed by the Legislature, thereby increasing the workload of staff attorneys who have been working more for less, all while shifting more and more cases to the private bar, thereby increasing the structural deficit.
But this is only one challenge facing an inadequately supported justice system. The governor signed 2011 Wis. Act 238, reestablishing a much needed pay-progression system for assistant district attorneys (ADAs), but this should have been taken up much sooner. Legislators finally started to address this issue after a 2011 University of Wisconsin study showed that turnover among ADAs averaged more than 18 percent since 2005, far greater than the 5 to 7 percent turnover among most public employees. Between 2001 and 2007, more than 75 percent of the ADAs left their jobs. The most common reason for leaving was salary.
The loss of experienced prosecutors who make hourly and daily decisions affecting both public safety and individual freedom creates a tremendous challenge to us as citizens. To take effect, Act 238 will need to be funded during the next budget process. In the meantime, we will continue to lose experienced prosecutors, and the scales of justice continue to be imbalanced.