Sen. Howard Marklein alongside other JFC Republicans announced a proposal to increase wages for Wisconsin’s assistant district attorneys and public defenders on Tuesday. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)
Wisconsin’s assistant district attorneys and public defenders would make a starting wage of $36 per hour under a plan proposed by Republican lawmakers on Tuesday. The proposal is $1 more than what Gov. Tony Evers included in his executive budget.
The Joint Finance Committee voted unanimously to approve the plan, which is meant to alleviate staffing shortages, address Wisconsin’s court case backlog and prevent a potential constitutional crisis.
“Our budget will invest in our criminal justice system to help ensure it is operating efficiently,” JFC co-chair Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) said at a press conference ahead of the meeting. “We know that this funding is critical for our communities and for making sure that we have safe and constitutionally protected places to live, work and raise a family.”
Currently, assistant district attorneys and public defenders in Wisconsin make a starting wage of $27.24 per hour — or about $56,000 per year. While the pay represents an increase of about 15% since 2012, inflation has risen more than twice as much in that same period, according to a report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
The pay is also low compared to what private sector lawyers make. Data from the 2021 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics survey shows that the median pay for Wisconsin lawyers was $115,336 a year — an equivalent of $55.45 an hour.
The low pay and a high workload for state lawyers has contributed to increasing staffing shortages, high turnover and a backlog of criminal cases, which in Wisconsin was over 35,000 cases in May 2022. The backlog was cited in a class action lawsuit filed against Evers and members of the Wisconsin Public Defender Board by eight plaintiffs who had been waiting for an appointed attorney for several weeks or months.
The State Bar of Wisconsin in January warned about a looming “constitutional crisis” in January, saying members are concerned over staffing and funding issues facing Wisconsin’s criminal justice system and called on the state Legislature to address the problem in the budget.
“Make no mistake, this is a defining moment for those that believe in our Constitution,” the statement said. “This is about victims that are waiting too long for justice. This is about those accused of a crime that are incarcerated without the ability to defend their constitutional right to receive a fair and speedy trial. This is about our hard-working state employees who are reporting emotional exhaustion and work stressors that impact their personal lives.”
All assistant district attorneys and public defenders would receive a $8.76 raise under the plan.
In addition to increasing pay for state employees, the Republican proposal would look to increase pay for private attorneys who take assigned cases from the public defender’s office from $70 an hour to $100 an hour. It would also double their compensation for travel from $25 per hour to $50 per hour. Evers included the same proposal in his budget.
When asked for comment on the Republican proposal, Britt Cudabeck, a representative from Evers’ office, pointed to a Twitter thread posted ahead of the committee meeting where Evers called on lawmakers to make investments in the justice workforce.
“Without providing new resources to recruit and retain qualified and experienced professionals, our justice system will continue to face a constitutional crisis,” Evers said on Twitter. “Our budget must bolster our justice workforce and include support for defenders, prosecutors, and other key positions.”
The plan received the support of the four Democrats on the committee with Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) saying he was “encouraged” to see that the voices in the state’s criminal justice system were being heard.
“This is an important step for the justice system. It is critical that we fund these positions, both private bar [attorneys] and those on staff in the prosecutor and public defender’s office,” Goyke said during the meeting. “I’m going to vote ‘yes’ on this motion, support what the Republicans have put forward, but remember, we do have more work to do to support the agencies.”
Goyke pointed out that some portions of Evers’ initial plan were cut including additional support and administrative staff and additional prosecutor positions.
Evers proposed dedicating $6.3 million to fund an additional 50 support staff positions to assist state public defenders, but that was completely removed from the Republicans plan. Evers also proposed spending over $8 million on additional assistant district attorney positions across the state. Republicans instead included $486,000 on positions in Langlade, Oneida, Ozaukee, Kenosha and Sauk counties.
Wisconsin State Public Defender Kelli Thompson called the Republican proposal a “historic investment in the justice system and public safety.”
“With these resources, we expect to retain some of the most experienced hard-working attorneys in the state and to recruit for the dozens and dozens of vacant positions both within the public defender’s office and the district attorney’s offices.” Thompson said at the Tuesday press conference. “Ultimately, 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.”
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