(The Center Square) – The State Bar of Wisconsin says the lack of prosecutors and public defenders in the state’s courtrooms will likely get worse.
The past, current, and future heads of the association on Monday warned of a constitutional crisis because there are not enough attorneys to handle cases across the state.
The State Bar is asking lawmakers in Madison to look to use some of Wisconsin’s record $6.6 billion surplus to send more money to both district attorneys and the state public defender’s office.
In a joint statement, the Bar’s Margaret W. Hickey, Dean R. Dietrich, and Cheryl Furstace Daniels said, “[We are] substantially concerned over staffing and funding issues in our state’s criminal justice system. Specifically, the staffing crisis in our District Attorney offices, State Public Defender’s office and with those private attorneys that take assigned counsel cases is beyond its breaking point.”
Their warning comes just weeks after Dodge County’s district attorney resigned, leaving that office without a full-time prosecutor.
“District attorneys across the state have either staff shortages or positions they are unable to fill as salaries have not kept pace with the employment market,” the Bar leaders said. “Starting pay for new assistant prosecutors ranks Wisconsin among the bottom 10 nationally.”
The annual starting pay for many assistant prosecutors in Wisconsin starts around $50,000.
The Bar says pay for public defenders is equally low, about $25 per hour, and is one of the reasons it is growing difficult to find lawyers to represent defendants who cannot hire a private attorney.
“State Public Defender Kelli Thompson has also highlighted these same issues with public defenders, indicating that her agency is almost down 20% of their typical attorney employees. The issue is even more eye opening in rural counties with staff vacancies that are not able to be filled,” the Bar leaders added.
The State Bar says a constitutional crisis is looming.
Its statement read, “Make no mistake, this is a defining moment for those that believe in our constitution. 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.”