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Assembly Republicans call for $50 million criminal justice package

February 19, 2019
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State Assistant Public Defender Jon Helland, right, confers with a client last year. Low pay for public defenders has long been viewed as a problem in Wisconsin.

Looking to ensure access to fair trials for poor defendants, Assembly Republicans on Monday proposed to increase pay for public defenders.

The proposal was one of several in a roughly $50 million package Republicans touted that would also add about 60 assistant district attorney positions, as well as raise wages for assistant district attorneys and correctional officers, although lawmakers gave few details as to specific amounts.

The announcement comes less than two weeks before Gov. Tony Evers’ official budget address.

Specifically, GOP lawmakers want to increase the pay for private lawyers assigned by the State Public Defender’s Office to represent clients who can’t afford legal representation to $70 per hour, up from the current $40 per hour, the lowest in the nation. Such private lawyers are appointed by the Public Defender when it can’t handle its caseload or when conflicts of interest arise.

The rate of pay for state-appointed lawyers hasn’t changed since 1995. About 40 percent of cases handled by the Public Defender’s Office in 2017 were handled by private lawyers, who can actually lose money when taking on such cases, according to court records.

Delays in the criminal justice process caused by the difficulty in finding private attorneys who will work for the state’s hourly rate are the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit from six plaintiffs who argue their constitutional rights to a lawyer and a speedy trial were violated. One plaintiff in Ashland County sat in jail for 75 days before being appointed counsel by the court.

Britt Cudaback, a spokeswoman for Evers, signaled support for the proposals.

“The governor has met with stakeholders and already planned to include some of these proposals — including a pay increase for public defenders — in his budget, and it’s good to hear that these provisions will have Republican support in the Legislature,” Cudaback said.

“These initiatives are tough but smart on crime,” said Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who outlined the proposals with State Public Defender Kelli Thompson, Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg and Director of State Courts Judge Randy Koschnick.

The pay rate for lawyers and public defenders who represent indigent people has long been a concern, so much so that the Wisconsin Supreme Court last year raised the hourly rate for lawyers appointed by judges from $70 to $100 per hour. The court, however, declined to address the $40-per-hour rate for those appointed by the State Public Defender.

Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit allege the higher rate of pay for court-appointed lawyers has led to private lawyers refusing the lower-paid appointments.

Last year, the Supreme Court warned of an impending “constitutional crisis” related to pay for appointed lawyers and urged the Legislature to work with the State Public Defender and counties on a solution.

Thompson on Monday said an increase in pay for both staff lawyers and private appointees is necessary to address delays in the justice system caused by the low pay rates.

She said it’s not uncommon for appointment secretaries to make 500 contacts to find a private lawyer willing to take on a relatively standard case.

In a statement, Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack said she supports raising pay for appointed lawyers and hiring more assistant district attorneys.

“This legislative initiative moves Wisconsin forward,” she said. “If enacted, it will support essential constitutional guarantees.”