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Leaving office, State Public Defender Kelli Thompson says Wisconsin incarcerates too many

After 12 years in the job, Thompson celebrates budget wins but says system is still underfunded

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

State Public Defender Kelli Thompson is stepping down Monday after 12 years on the job. She said now is the right time for the agency to transition to new leadership after the most recent state budget provided a significant increase in resources.

Attorneys in the public defender’s office received long-sought pay increases. State-appointed private attorneys who handle overflow cases from the public defender’s office will now be paid $100 an hour, up from $40 an hour just three years ago.

Thompson told Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time” the state’s criminal justice system still needs greater investment.

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“Both public defenders and the prosecutor’s side, we’re really struggling with recruitment and retention because this work is difficult,” Thompson said. “We just have an extraordinarily overwhelmed criminal justice system.”

Thompson said the state incarcerates too many people.

“We continue to criminalize issues better addressed through the mental health, substance abuse treatment and educational system than the court system,” she wrote in her resignation letter last month. “In continuing to do so, we perpetuate generational harm, particularly in our Black and Native American communities, all while not making our state safer.”

Wisconsin continues to have the largest disparity between Black and white male incarceration of any state, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Speaking on “Central Time,” Thompson framed the issue in economic terms. The state has low unemployment and needs more workers, she said.

“A number of those individuals who could be potential workers are sitting in cages around our state,” she said. “So, I think we overuse incarceration.”

Katie York, a deputy in the public defender’s office, will fill the position in an acting role while the board that oversees the agency searches for a permanent replacement. The public defender’s office is an independent executive branch agency.

Thompson’s father, Tommy Thompson, was elected governor of Wisconsin four times. She has said that she will not run for public office.