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GOP Lawmakers Support Pay Increase For Attorneys Taking Public Defender Cases

Private Lawyers Who Take The Cases Would Be Paid $70 Per Hour

State Public Defender Kelli Thompson
State Public Defender Kelli Thompson speaks at a state Capitol news conference Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. Thompson supports a plan that would raise the pay for private lawyers who take public defender cases from $40 per hour to $70 per hour. Shawn Johnson/WPR

Private lawyers who take public defender cases would get pay increases and the state would add new prosecutor positions throughout Wisconsin under a proposal GOP lawmakers say they’ll support in the upcoming budget.

The pay for private attorneys taking public defender cases would be $70 per hour, up from the current $40 per hour, which is the lowest rate in the nation.

Lawyers and judges have regularly asked lawmakers and governors to increase the pay for public defender cases. Last year, they unsuccessfully petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court to raise the pay from $40 per hour to $100.

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Advocates say the lack of private attorneys willing to take these cases has led to some indigent defendants sitting in jail for weeks and even months before they find a lawyer.

Assembly Republicans announced their proposals at press conferences around Wisconsin, including one at the Wisconsin state Capitol featuring State Public Defender Kelli Thompson. Thompson said her office was having a harder time finding lawyers to take public defender cases.

“It is not uncommon for our appointment secretaries to make more than 500 contacts in relatively standard cases just to find a private attorney willing to take the case,” Thompson said.

The long delays have led to a federal lawsuit by five men and one woman in January arguing their right to an attorney and speedy trial were violated when they had to wait between 21 and 75 days before lawyers would represent them.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Tony Evers said the governor looked forward to working with legislators from both parties to advance the public defender pay provision in his budget.

“The governor has met with stakeholders and already planned to include some of these proposals — including a pay increase for public defenders — in his budget, and it’s good to hear that these provisions will have Republican support in the Legislature,” said Britt Cudaback, Evers’ deputy communications director.

Evers will introduce his budget Thursday, Feb. 28.

In addition to the pay increase for public defender cases, Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said Republicans would support adding about 60 assistant district attorney positions throughout the state.

Born also said Republicans would support a pay progression plan for public defenders, assistant district attorneys and potentially, prison guards.

“We are facing a shortage of correctional officers,” Born said. “We will be investing in initiatives to retain quality employees.”

The GOP proposal would also expand treatment options for offenders dealing with drug and alcohol programs and expand re-entry programs for offenders who have already served their time.

Born said the entire package would cost the state roughly $50 million over the course of the next two-year budget.

In addition to Thompson, Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg and Director of State Courts Randy Koschnick also joined Born at the Madison news conference.