The funding crisis in Wisconsin’s criminal justice system did not start with the recent resignation of Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg. However, his act illustrated, in real terms, what has been happening for the last several years in Wisconsin’s district attorney and public defender offices.
When resigning, Klomberg stated that “unfortunately, across the state, scores of prosecutor retirements and departures coupled with a lack of viable recruits has left many offices without meaningful options for future staffing. Dodge County is suffering from this reality. It has resulted from the state’s failure to keep up with the appropriate compensation levels to attract new prosecution talent to these critical public safety positions. Dodge County, and the state, will suffer from this neglect for years to come if the Governor and State Legislature do not act swiftly and decisively.”
The long-term lack of proper funding for all aspects of Wisconsin’s legal system has severely compromised access to justice.
The staffing crisis involving district attorney offices, the State Public Defenders office, and private attorneys who take assigned counsel cases is beyond its breaking point. Vacancies in the ranks of elected district attorneys are now occurring with alarming frequency. District attorney offices throughout Wisconsin have either staff shortages or positions they are unable to fill as salaries have not kept pace with the employment market. Starting pay for new assistant prosecutors in Wisconsin is among the lowest in the nation.
These same issues exist for our state public defenders, with the typical number of attorney employees down almost 20%. The issue is even more stark in rural counties with staff vacancies that the counties haven’t been able to fill.
It’s a sad commentary when a starting salary at a big box store is the same or higher than the starting rate for an attorney serving the court and ensuring access to justice in the community.
Let’s be clear. This is about victims who are waiting too long for justice. This is about people accused of crimes who are incarcerated without the ability to defend the constitutional presumption of innocence or receive fair and speedy trials. This is about state employees who are reporting emotional exhaustion and work stressors that affect their personal lives. This is about the private attorney who takes an assigned case at $70 per hour in court, travels hours around the state for even less, and earns only barely enough to cover overhead costs.
With the state being in a healthy fiscal position, there is ample opportunity to address this problem. The consequences for the justice system of taking no action are too great to ignore. All we are asking for is a fair investment for those public servants fighting for the public’s safety and a court system that works and is fair for all.
It is time for Wisconsin’s elected state leaders to come together and fix this funding emergency without delay.
Take Action. Make Your Voice Heard.
Contact the Governor and Your State Legislators.
Through the Government Relations program, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes it easy for you to contact and send personalized messages to the governor and your state legislators. Stay current on issues affecting the justice system, access the Advocacy Network Grassroots Toolkit, and read the monthly e-newsletter, Rotunda Report.
Visit the State Bar Advocacy Network at wisbar.org/GovRelations.
» Cite this article: 96 Wis. Law. 9 (March 2023).