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Ahead of budget meeting, 2 former campaign rivals join forces to call for crime lab funding

A coalition, including public defenders, district attorneys and Wisconsin's attorney general, is renewing a push for increased crime lab staffing

People speak at a press conference.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, right speaks while standing next to Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, at the Risser Justice Center in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Two former campaign rivals are joining forces to advocate for increased criminal justice funding, as lawmakers prepare to vote on a budget for Wisconsin’s Department of Justice.

Democratic Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and his 2022 challenger Eric Toney, a Republican, are asking lawmakers to fund 16 additional employees to staff state crime labs. That includes the addition of 10 toxicologists, four DNA analysts and two additional crime scene response specialists, who are called to investigate the premises of major crimes, such as homicides.

More robust staffing will allow the labs to turn around results more quickly when police departments request tests for things like DNA matching or the presence of alcohol or illegal drugs, Kaul said. That in turn can allow officials to schedule court dates more quickly, so cases can be resolved.

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“There’s a direct relationship between having the resources we need and how efficiently we can test evidence,” Kaul said at a Madison news conference. “So if you’re understaffed, it’s going to take longer to turn samples around.”

People speak at a press conference.
Fond du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney, left, speaks at a press conference with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, right, on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, at the Risser Justice Center in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Toney, who serves as Fond du Lac County’s district attorney, criticized Kaul’s oversight of the labs when Toney ran unsuccessfully to unseat the attorney general last year. But on Tuesday, Toney spoke on behalf of the Wisconsin District Attorney’s Association and urged lawmakers to support Kaul’s crime lab budget request.

“Looking at the crime labs, they help us secure justice, and they also help vindicate the innocent, and so we would love to see those additional resources,” Toney said.

His calls were echoed by Wisconsin’s Public Defender’s Office, its State Court Office and the Association of State Prosecutors, which lobbies for the interests of assistant district attorneys in Wisconsin.

That same coalition joined forces recently to successfully push for raises for assistant public defenders and assistant district attorneys. Criminal justice leaders said higher pay would help counter a staffing shortage of public attorneys that the State Bar Association has described as approaching a “constitutional crisis.

People speak at a press conference.
Administrator of the Division of Forensic Sciences Nicole Roehm speaks to reporters Tuesday, June 6, 2023, at the Risser Justice Center in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Last month, the Legislature’s Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee approved a pay schedule that will bring starting salaries up to $36-an-hour for assistant DAs and assistant public defenders.

The Joint Finance Committee is scheduled to consider the DOJ’s budget on Thursday.

In all, Kaul’s requested a total of $490 million for the agency in the state’s next two-year budget, which would be a nearly 55 percent spending boost. That request was larger than the agency spending plan proposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who asked for more than $409 million to fund the DOJ over the next two fiscal years.