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Prosecutors, public defenders would receive raises under measure passed by Legislature’s budget panel

The move is aimed at addressing staffing shortages that some have described as verging on a constitutional crisis

Gavel on a law desk
Joe Gratz (CC)

Prosecutor and public defenders’ starting salaries would increase to $36 per hour under a proposal approved Tuesday by the Legislature’s budget committee.

The motion would also increase pay for private attorneys who take public defender cases, fund additional prosecutors in four counties and extend a program that provides counsel to families involved in the child protective services system.

It’s an effort to address an ongoing staffing shortage in Wisconsin’s prosecutor and public defenders’ offices. Communities across the state, and especially in rural areas, have struggled to attract and retain attorneys to work in the public sector.

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Advocates say low pay and punishing workloads discourage trained lawyers from working in public service.

At a press conference earlier in the day, top public attorneys said the proposal would allow the wheels of the criminal legal system to move faster.

“There’s no doubt in my mind this is going to be a transformational budget for prosecutors to help us retain and recruit amazing prosecutors to help keep our community safe,” said Eric Toney, the district attorney for Fond du Lac County, and president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association.

Kelli Thompson, the state public defender, said that funding public defender positions ensures that Wisconsinites will have access to constitutional due process.

“Being able to recruit and retain the attorneys and staff necessary to ensure the constitutional rights that are protected is a core responsibility of state government,” she said. “Ensuring that the justice system is properly resourced is a direct investment in individual liberties, due process and public safety to our communities around Wisconsin.”

Under the proposal, assistant district attorneys, district attorneys and assistant public defenders’ starting pay would increase to $36 an hour, up from $27.24. On an annual basis, they’d earn roughly $75,000 per year, up from around $57,000 right now.

Private attorneys who take on public defense cases would be compensated at $100 per hour, up from $70 per hour. That’s a practice often used when public defenders aren’t available or have a conflict of interest. According to the state public defender office, about 40 percent of cases were referred out to private lawyers last fiscal year.

The proposal also does away with a salary cap that Republican Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, said discourages experienced lawyers from sticking around, allowing assistant DAs and defenders to earn salary increases.

“We want to make sure that our senior experienced public defenders and prosecutors are respected and that they know the state recognizes the value of that experience,” said Born, who co-chairs the Legislature’s budget panel.

It would also create new district attorney positions in Sauk and Kenosha counties, and fund the expansion of positions in Langlade, Oneida and Ozaukee counties.

Wisconsin is not alone in its struggle to fill public attorney positions. Attorneys — many of whom take on high student debt loads during their training — can earn much higher salaries in the private sector. Experts say that this issue affects red and blue counties alike, but that rural areas may particularly struggle to attract top talent.

Earlier this year, the Wisconsin State Bar Association said that the lack of public defenders was sending the state toward a constitutional crisis. Roughly 45 out of 350 full-time positions were vacant as of early February, according to the public defender’s office.

Advocates say that shortages in the public defense system leads to a backlog that leaves people in jail longer. They say the prosecutor shortage can mean defenders plea out more often, rather than facing trial or more significant charges.

The motion passed unanimously out of the Joint Finance Committee. It still needs to pass the full Legislature and be signed by Gov. Tony Evers to become law.

Evers, a Democrat, proposed raising prosecutor and public defender pay to $35 per hour in his budget, a dollar less than the raises approved by lawmakers Tuesday. His budget also called on increasing the private bar rate to $100, the same amount approved by lawmakers.