The criminal justice system is in crisis. Since the pandemic started in March 2020, criminal cases have become backlogged in many counties. In some (for example, Milwaukee County), additional reserve judges have been brought in to handle the backlog. However, we cannot address the pileup of proceedings without enough prosecutors and public defenders to move cases through the system.
Currently, about 12% of statewide prosecutor positions are open. Dodge County was without a district attorney for more than one month, between the resignation of the former officeholder in December 2022 and Gov. Evers’ appointment of a replacement in February 2023, and has no other full-time prosecutors. Similarly, many counties are short of public defenders and must hire public defenders from outside the county. Sometimes the public defenders travel across the state to make appearances. According to State Public Defender Kelli Thompson, there has been a 20% attrition rate among public defenders in the last few years.
When the criminal law side of the justice system does not function efficiently, there is a spillover effect on the civil law side of the justice system. For example, judges have been reallocated from civil court matters in Milwaukee County to preside in criminal court matters. Although appropriate, this use of resources means that a backlog will develop in the civil courts.
Wisconsin prosecutors and public defenders are underpaid compared to those in neighboring states. It is not realistic to expect lawyers with high amounts of student debt to take these positions. Prosecutors and public defenders also report high levels of stress in their jobs. In a recent State Bar of Wisconsin survey conducted in four counties and including 109 prosecutors, 77% reported emotional exhaustion, 70% reported restlessness and worry, 65% reported work stress had affected their personal lives, and 58% had financial worries. While the survey results are preliminary and only represent four counties, none of these statistics are surprising.
All Wisconsin residents are touched by the criminal justice system in some way, perhaps because they are or know crime victims or defendants. It is in society’s interest to properly and fairly address all criminal matters. The State Bar of Wisconsin is making strong efforts to address this issue by educating the public and urging legislators and the governor to fully fund the state’s criminal justice system.
Gov. Evers in his Budget Address recommended full funding for the criminal justice system. It is more critical than ever that you contact the governor and your legislators to support adequate funding in the upcoming budget for prosecutors and public defenders. You can do so easily by using the Grassroots program at wisbar.org/GovRelations.
Wisconsin prosecutors and public defenders are underpaid compared to those in neighboring states.
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State Bar Advocacy Network: wisbar.org/GovRelations
Rotunda Report: wisbar.org/rotundareport
» Cite this article: 96 Wis. Law. 4 (March 2023).