THE CAPITOL REPORT: Help Appears to Be on the Way for Local Prosecutors
by DENISE GUTTERY
It’s been a long time in coming, but help finally appears to be on the way for local prosecutors’ offices around the state. And the fact that the Republican-dominated budget-writing committee took action in unanimous fashion emphasizes the importance of the issue and the likelihood that Gov. Tony Evers will approve.
The Joint Finance Committee voted unanimously to give state prosecutors and public defenders a pay raise of $8.76 per hour – equal to $18,221 a year – as both job positions fight vacancy rates that advocates say have led to slowdowns in the criminal-justice system.
The move also boosted starting pay for assistant public defenders and public defenders to $74,880, up from $56,659.
Backers called the proposed investment historic, while Republicans noted that it exceeds what Evers proposed. His budget called for increasing pay by $7.76 per hour for prosecutors and public defenders.
Fond du Lac County district attorney Eric Toney, who ran for state attorney general last year as a Republican and is president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association, joined GOP committee members ahead of the vote to praise the proposal. Toney lost to Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul.
“There’s no doubt in my mind this is going to be a transformational budget for us to help retain and recruit amazing prosecutors to help keep our communities safe, working hand in hand with law enforcement,” Toney said.
The package comes after several budgets in which district attorneys, public defenders, the court system and the state’s Department of Justice have joined forces to lobby the Legislature for a series of funding priorities that they have argued are essential to an efficient criminal-justice system.
According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, 22.6% of assistant district attorneys left the job in fiscal year 2021 for reasons other than retirement. That dropped to 14.7% in fiscal year 2022, but it was still nearly double the 7.4% turnover rate in fiscal year 2014.
For assistant state public defenders, the rate was 23.7% in fiscal year 2021 and 18.9% in fiscal year 2022, compared to 3.9% in fiscal year 2014.
“Being able to recruit and retain the attorneys and staff necessary to ensure that constitutional rights are protected is a core responsibility of state government,” said state public defender Kelli Thompson.
In all, the package would increase funding for district attorneys by $21.2 million and for public defenders by $36 million.
- $18.3 million to fund the pay increases for assistant district attorneys
- $926,200 in 2024-25 to increase hourly compensation for elected district attorneys
- $18.4 million for a pay increase for public defenders
- $487,300 to provide additional assistant district attorney positions in Langlade, Oneida, Ozaukee, Kenosha and Sauk counties
- $17.6 million to increase private bar attorney compensation
Under state law, those who don’t qualify for a state public defender, but are unable to afford a lawyer on their own, are still entitled to publicly funded representation. First, the state public defender tries to find a private attorney to take the case. If one cannot be found, a judge then appoints an attorney.
The compensation rate for those private attorneys appointed by the state public defender is now $70 per hour. Under the motion approved today, that would go up to $100 per hour, and travel compensation would double to $50 per hour.
That $100 per hour would match the rate that private attorneys receive when a judge appoints them to a case.
GOP state Sen. Eric Wimberger, a lawyer, said the current rate of $70 per hour creates a disincentive for private attorneys to take cases until a judge appoints someone at $100 per hour. That cost is borne by counties.
Wimberger said the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a backlog in court cases that is still being resolved. The proposed increase, he said, would help to iron that out because it is “really going to incentivize people to take cases early, get the justice done that needs to be done.”
The Capitol Report is written by editorial staff at WisPolitics.com, a nonpartisan, Madison-based news service that specializes in covering government and politics. It’s distributed for publication by members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.