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Report: Pay increases needed for Wisconsin’s public defenders, prosecutors

Gov. Tony Evers' budget includes additional $24.4M for State Prosecutors Office

A Dane County courtroom as seen from the witness stand
A Dane County courtroom. Michelle Johnson/WPR

Tim Gruenke has served as the district attorney for La Crosse County for over 15 years. When he posted a recent job opening for an assistant district attorney, he thought he’d get plenty of interest as many law students will soon be graduating in May.

But he has yet to receive one application.

When he does get interest in other positions, Gruenke said he’s seen a recent lack of experience among applicants.

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“The people that do apply, there’s not much competition,” Gruenke said, ”We’re not getting 20 or 30 applicants, where we can find the best people that are a good fit and can stay here for a long time.”

Gruenke isn’t the only district attorney dealing with this problem. A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum found public attorneys across the state are being paid significantly less than private attorneys. That’s led to a shortage of public defenders.

That combined with a lack of experience is nearing what the state’s bar association has a called a constitutional crisis.

Gov. Tony Evers’ biennial budget proposal includes an additional $24.4 million for the State Prosecutors Office and $42.6 million for the Office of the State Public Defender in hopes to increase pay rates for both offices. But it’s unclear what the state Legislature’s Republican-controlled finance committee will include in their own version of the budget.

Adam Plotkin, legislative liaison to the Office of the State Public Defender, said he’s had encouraging discussions with state lawmakers about the issue.

“(Lawmakers) really understand that there’s an issue that has to be addressed,” Plotkin said. “We haven’t gotten specific, firm commitment, but we have yet to talk to a legislator that doesn’t think that something has to be changed here.”

“If we don’t have adequate resources in the criminal legal system then public safety in our communities — both short term and long term — suffers,” he added.

For Gruenke, he said the boost in pay can’t come soon enough.

“This has been years in the making, that we’ve been telling the Legislature, and past couple of governors, that something had to be done about the pay structure or else we’d face a crisis. And I think now we find ourselves in a crisis,” Gruenke said.

Two black desk chairs are positioned by a table in a courtroom.
Chairs remain empty before a hearing begins on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2023, at the Dodge County courthouse in Juneau, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Report points to low rates of pay for public attorneys

The Wisconsin Policy Forum report found that newly hired assistant public defenders and assistant district attorneys make an average starting salary of $56,659 per year. That’s an increase of about 15 percent since 2012, but inflation has risen more than twice as much in that same time period.

In 2021, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average pay for lawyers in Wisconsin was $115,336 a year, while public attorneys across the state make an average of $74,381 a year. Recent law school graduates in private practice make more than $130,000 a year on average, according to 2021 data from the National Association for Law Placement.

The average time it takes state prosecutors to resolve felonies and misdemeanors is also increasing. The median felony was resolved in 152 days in 2013, compared to 241 days in 2021, while the median misdemeanor increased in time-to-resolution from 89 days in 2013 to 168 days in 2021, the report found.

The report also said there’s a need for more prosecutors. There are currently 456 district attorneys, assistant district attorneys and deputy district attorneys working in the state, but the report said that number needs to increase to 577 full-time prosecutors to handle the workload across Wisconsin.

Public defenders in Wisconsin also make less than their peers nationwide. The average state public defender with 11 to 15 years of experience made $85,150 in 2021, compared to $101,145 nationally, according to the report.

As a result, fewer people are applying for public defender positions.

“Total applications for attorney positions also dropped in each of the previous four fiscal years, from 355 in 2018 to just 168 in 2022, while the number of statewide licensed attorneys has risen slightly in each of those years,” the report found.

Despite lower pay, prosecutors and public defenders typically receive more generous pension and health benefits compared to private attorneys, the report found.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos listening to Gov. Tony Evers address
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, center, watches as Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers addresses a joint session of the Legislature in the Assembly chambers during the Governor’s State of the State speech at the state Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Madison. Behind Evers is Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Tyler August, left, R-Lake Geneva, and former Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton. Andy Manis/AP Photo

Evers’ budget proposal includes raising the minimum hourly pay for public attorneys to $35 — a 28.5 percent increase.

“The governor’s proposal also would raise the compensation rate for private attorneys performing public defender work to $100 per hour for casework and $50 per hour for travel,” the report said. “This would represent a $30 increase from current levels, and would be more than double what these private attorneys made hourly prior to 2020.”

Ari Brown, the author of the report, said increasing pay for attorneys performing public defender work is a key part of the issue.

“That would certainly be more in line with a lot of what you see in other states,” Brown said. “That could be another mechanism by which you might attract folks to do public defender work, even if they’re not public defenders.”

Gruenke said he hopes raises for public attorneys are approved in the upcoming budget.

“There’s no incentive to work as a prosecutor, especially when the future always looks bleak,” Gruenke said, adding that a lack of interest in prosecutors and public defenders positions has led to a lack of experience and quality.

“People need to understand how important these positions are and how important it is to keep them funded,” Gruenke said. “Without giving people a raise, we just cannot compete.”