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From ‘serious’ to ‘dire:’ DAs offices across Wisconsin and the country are struggling to hire prosecutors

Staffing shortages have some in the criminal justice system warning of a constitutional crisis

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

Kurt Klomberg had been Dodge County’s top prosecutor for more than a decade, a job he describes as a calling.

But this winter Klomberg was facing a crisis. The number of assistant district attorneys staffing the office was set to shrink from four to zero, because of planned retirements, a resignation and an extended leave.

Faced with few applicants to fill those positions, Klomberg too handed in his notice effective mid-January. He said there was no way for him to responsibly handle hundreds of cases every year on his own.

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“I realized that that was going to cause me to probably commit multiple acts of malpractice just because I wouldn’t have the time to properly address my cases,” Klomberg told WPR in a January interview.

A man sits in a chair at a table in a courtroom.
Special prosecutor Mark Williams speaks during a sentencing hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2023 in Dodge County Circuit Court in Juneau, Wis. Although Williams is retired, he’s among the attorneys helping out temporarily in Dodge County, as the District Attorney’s Office wrestles with short-staffing.  Angela Major/WPR

Experts say Dodge County’s staffing woes are not isolated, as district attorneys’ offices across the country struggle to recruit and retain lawyers amid a red-hot labor market.

“Wisconsin is not an outlier at all,” said Melba Pearson, the director of Prosecution Projects at Florida International University’s School of Public Policy. “This is happening nationwide. Prosecutors’ offices, in all 50 states, whether it be conservative jurisdictions, progressive jurisdictions, anything in between, are really struggling.”

Prosecutors blame low pay for staffing challenge

In Wisconsin, Klomberg and other prosecutors said low pay is largely to blame. Starting pay for Wisconsin’s assistant DAs amounts to less than $57,000 a year. Meanwhile, recent law school grads in private practice are making more than $130,000 a year on average, according to class of 2021 data from the National Association for Law Placement.

Attorney Jennifer Tate took a pay cut when she left a private defense firm to prosecute non-fatal shootings as assistant DA in Milwaukee County.

But, after Tate went through a divorce, it became clear she couldn’t make ends meet on her assistant DA salary alone.

“I’m going to have my own household to run,” she said. “I’m going have my own rent. I’m going to have my own utilities bill. I’m going to have my own car payments. That’s not shared anymore.”

The 36-year-old now works a second job hostessing at a downtown Milwaukee restaurant. She’s grateful her boss there was willing to accommodate her schedule.

“I just kind of laid it all out there and I said, ‘I work full time as a lawyer,’” Tate recalled. ‘”I have three kids. I’m getting divorced. I’m going to have them half of the time. Here’s when I’m available.’”

Now, criminal justice groups including the Wisconsin District Attorney’s Association are urging state lawmakers to raise starting pay for both assistant district attorneys and assistant state public defenders to more than $72,000 a year. Attorneys at higher ends of the pay scale would also see pay bumps — a change that backers hope will help with retention.

Three flags fly above a tan building that says
Flags fly on a cold day Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2023, at the Dodge County courthouse in Juneau, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

It’s part of the battle across the country to recruit and retain lawyers, some of whom have six figures of law school debt. It doesn’t help that local prosecutors often have heavy case loads and typically can’t work remotely, said Pearson, a civil rights attorney and former prosecutor.

“Let’s say a starting prosecutor makes $60,000,” Person said. “If you can make $60,000 at a firm and not have to pay for gas, not have to leave the house, you know, not have to have a huge dry cleaning bill, because you’re not physically going to court as often, that may seem much more attractive and more budget friendly than going to a prosecutor’s office.”

Wisconsin also faces a shortage of public defenders

In Wisconsin, the state’s bar association said a lack of experienced prosecutors, coupled with a shortage of public defenders, is so bad it’s approaching a constitutional crisis.

About 13 percent of 350 full-time-equivalent attorney positions in the Office of the State Public Defender were vacant as of early February, according to the office’s legislative liaison. Last fiscal year, the office referred about 40 percent of its cases to private attorneys, when on-staff public defenders weren’t available or had conflicts of interests.

A judge sits at the front of the courtroom in a black robe.
Circuit Court Judge Brian Pfitzinger presides over a sentencing hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2023, at the Dodge County courthouse in Juneau, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

COVID-19 appears to have intensified the issue, as many courts wade through a post-pandemic backlog. The drawn-out process can be frustrating for victims, and people accused of crimes may be forced to wait longer in jail because of delays in appointing lawyers.

Moreover, Pearson said overworked prosecutors have less time to weigh life-altering decisions like when to charge someone with a crime and what to recommend for bail.

“You may end up in a situation where you’re more likely to plea a case out just because of the fact that you have too many cases, and it’s just not possible to work up each case the way it needs to be,” she said.

A lack of experienced prosecutors

Joan Korb has more than 30 years of experience as a prosecutor in Wisconsin. She retired — officially — in 2017, but that hasn’t kept her out of courtrooms across Wisconsin where DAs are desperate for staff.

“I keep getting asked to come back,” Korb said. “Because of the shortage in certain counties.”

Korb said she can’t accept all the requests, but she helps out as a part-time prosecutor in counties where she has family who can give her a place to stay. She’s currently volunteering her time as a special prosecutor in Sheboygan County, where the DA’s office is trying to get by with four full-time equivalent assistant district attorneys instead of 10.

Korb said short staffing in prosecutors’ offices across the state has “always been serious,” but that recently the situation has become “dire.” Along with a desire for higher pay and better work-life balance, Korb believes recent law school graduates may be steering clear of becoming prosecutors because they don’t want to get involved with law enforcement.

Cream and brown tile in an empty courtroom hallway.
The hallways are empty Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2023, at the Dodge County courthouse in Juneau, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

“There’s been so much bad publicity, around policing and the whole criminal justice system, that it doesn’t appear that there are as many students even … taking the criminal law courses and doing internships in criminal law as there used to be,” Korb said.

Turnover is another major problem, Korb said, since young lawyers often gain a few years’ courtroom experience in a DA’s office before leaving for a private sector job or even a higher-paying public sector one.

“I’ve worked in the Fond du Lac office part-time, and whenever I am here, physically in-person, I have a line of people sometimes at my door wanting to run cases past me because I am by far the oldest, most experienced person in the office,” she said.

Klomberg, the longtime Dodge County DA, started a new job last month as an assistant district attorney in neighboring Green Lake County, where he said he’ll be able to do the work he loves in an office that’s fully staffed. Gov. Tony Evers has appointed Andrea Will as his replacement in Dodge County, and retired prosecutors have been helping out there part-time.

But, in the long-term, staffing there is still uncertain. Like so many DA’s offices, Dodge County is pleading for applicants.