Bill Seeks To Boost Pay Progression Funding For Public Defenders

Prosecutors Received More Money For Pay Progression Under Budget

State Public Defender Kelli Thompson
State Public Defender Kelli Thompson is seen at the Oct. 16, 2018, meeting of the Legislative Study Committee on Bail and Conditions of Pretrial Release. At a December 2018 meeting, Thompson, a member of the committee, remarked, “We have people every single day that are being put in custody on high cash bail based on poverty alone.” Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The state’s top public defender hopes legislation will address a disparity in funding for merit-based pay between prosecutors and public defenders.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers are sponsoring a bill that would increase merit-based pay for public defenders by roughly $4 million over the next two years.

The two-year budget approved in July by lawmakers and Gov. Tony Evers included around $4.5 million to fund merit-based pay increases for assistant prosecutors. About $1.2 million will go to pay progression for assistant public defenders.

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State Public Defender Kelli Thompson fears the lack of equity and recent addition of prosecutor positions statewide may lead staff to seek jobs elsewhere.

“If they’re able to work in the criminal justice system and make more money, it will be hard for me to keep them,” said Thompson.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, and Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, are lead authors of a bill that would provide around $4 million more for public defender pay over the next two years. Loudenbeck said the budget made significant investments in the criminal justice system, including additional positions for prosecutors and raising the private bar rate from $40 to $70 an hour.

“We can’t always fund every priority that we have,” she said. “We made a substantial investment in all three legs of the criminal justice stool, but leaving this one out really deserves a second look.”

Some argued more funding for prosecutors makes sense since district attorneys have higher caseloads, said Louis Molepske, Jr., president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys’ Association. However, he said their association supports legislation to fund a public defender pay plan.

“We do not want backlogs of cases,” he said. “If the Office of the Public Defender is having problems filling positions or maintaining the people they have because the pay is lousy, now all that does is delay justice for victims and it delays our caseload here.”

Thompson agreed the loss of an experienced public defender may have ripple effects across the justice system. She added some areas of Wisconsin have one public defender office with attorneys who represent multiple counties.

“It is extraordinarily complicated in our smaller, more rural offices where we just don’t have a significant number of staff,” said Thompson.

The State Public Defender’s Office has already faced difficulty with finding private attorneys to represent clients in cases where conflicts exist. She said the increased private bar rate is a significant step, but she fears inadequate pay progression may impact effective representation for indigent clients. The bill’s co-author Rep. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison, said merit-based pay increases the odds of retaining experienced public defenders.

“That’s what is best for our system in general and most affordable,” said Tusler. “To have great attorneys that get the job done right the first time.”

A spokeswoman for Evers said he supports the legislation. Staff for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday on the legislation.

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