Prosecutor and public defender vacancies are down following newly approved raises in Wisconsin

The State Bar of Wisconsin had warned a shortage of those attorneys was approaching 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

Early indications show vacancies are down since Wisconsin implemented salary increases to help counter staffing shortages among prosecutors and public defenders.

The hiring follows repeated warnings by the State Bar of Wisconsin, which said earlier this year that Wisconsin’s shortage of public attorneys was so bad it was approaching a “constitutional crisis.”

That’s partly why lawmakers included pay bumps for public defenders, assistant district attorneys, deputy DAs and DAs in Wisconsin’s new biennial budget. The raises took effect on July 1 and included $8.76 hourly pay increases for assistant DAs, deputy DAs and assistant public defenders, bringing starting pay to $36 an hour.

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While it’s not yet clear how the salary changes have affected hiring in the long-term, Wisconsin District Attorneys Association President Eric Toney says the pay bumps appear to be reducing turnover.

“It’s going to take some time to really see the impact from the May and December law school graduates and seeing how many of those students were able to bring into the profession,” said Toney, who is the elected DA in Fond Du Lac County and a former Republican candidate for Wisconsin attorney general. “We’ve seen some good positive changes on morale, as well as retaining the wonderful people that we have.”

Twenty-nine more assistant district attorney positions were filled as of late October compared to the same time last year, according to figures provided by Wisconsin’s Department of Administration.

The budget, which was signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers this summer, also allocated funding for creating more assistant DA positions in multiple counties. While filling vacancies should be the first priority, Toney said lawmakers may want to consider adding additional attorney positions beyond that in future spending plans.

“This has been a transformational investment in prosecutors from the state budget, which we are so appreciative of,” Toney said. “(But) there is still a crushing workload for prosecutors across Wisconsin.”

On the public defense side of the criminal justice system, retention also appears to be improving.

Close to 8 percent of the 375 attorney positions in the State Public Defender’s office are vacant, said Adam Plotkin, a lobbyist for the office. That compares to a vacancy rate that hovered above 20 percent in 2022 and 2021, Plotkin said.

“Obviously, it’s still early, and we knew the budget wouldn’t solve every problem, but it has had a significant impact on staff attorney turnover,” Plotkin said, noting that, in exit surveys, public defenders repeatedly cite pay and heavy caseloads as their top reasons for leaving the office.

Historically, Wisconsin’s public defender’s office has also struggled to find enough private attorneys to represent low-income clients, especially in rural areas. Those lawyers agree to take on public defense cases when a state public defender is not available, typically because of the office’s short-staffing or because a state public defender has a conflict of interest.

The recently-approved budget includes $8.8 million per year to increase hourly compensation for those private attorneys from $70 to $100. It also increases compensation for travel.

Plotkin says so far those changes appear to be helping, with more private bar attorneys agreeing to take on public defense cases. He says as of the start of this month, 21 more private bar attorneys have been certified for public defense cases compared to Oct. 1 of last year.