About 40 counties in Wisconsin could address staffing shortages in their district attorneys' offices under a Republican proposal set for a vote in the state Assembly this week.
"The biggest barrier, out-state to criminal justice, and just plain justice for victims, is the shortage of staffing in the district attorneys’ offices," said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who spearheaded the deal with Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam.
The proposal takes a step toward addressing a problem that has plagued the state for years, leading to what some prosecutors have called a "public safety crisis."
National guidelines recommend counties have one prosecutor for every 10,000 residents. A 2016 workload analysis shows that Wisconsin is 139 prosecutors short of what it needs. Seven counties are fully staffed. Eleven are operating at or below half of their staffing needs. The rest fall somewhere in between.
District attorneys have sought more positions for years, as the staffing level throughout the state has been virtually stagnant for at least a decade. A request for 106 positions in the 2017-19 budget went unfulfilled. Gov. Scott Walker opted instead to set aside about $3.7 million to give assistant district attorneys and deputy district attorneys pay increases of about $2 an hour in each of the two budget years.
The proposal from Nygren and Born would allocate 53.75 positions throughout the state, with a price tag of about $4 million.
Counties operating at staffing levels of less than 79 percent that requested positions in the 2017-19 budget would be eligible for the positions, and no county could receive more than two. Born and Nygren estimated about 40 counties would meet the criteria — many of them rural, but some highly populated.
The measure would take effect on July 1, 2019.
In crafting the plan, Nygren said he sought to avoid some of the political games that have been tied to funding these positions in the past. By using criteria from the state's workload study, counties' needs would be addressed equally regardless of who represents them in the Legislature.
"This is an opportunity for us to make a smart, structural change to our system," Nygren told reporters.
The proposal will be attached as an amendment to a bill that would would require the Department of Corrections to recommend revoking probation, parole or extended supervision for anyone who is charged with a felony or violent misdemeanor while under the agency's purview. That bill, authored by Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, and Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, was approved by the Senate late last year. The Assembly plans to take it up on Thursday.
In an interview last summer, Manitowoc County District Attorney Jacalyn LaBre said prosecutors don't expect lawmakers to fill all 139 positions in one shot, but she urged them to start the process soon. LaBre is president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association.
"District attorneys' offices around the state are horribly understaffed," LaBre said. "That impacts the efficiency of the offices, getting cases handled appropriately. It impacts everything in the system. We basically have to triage or prioritize things that come in the door."
The people who suffer most from overburdened district attorneys' offices are crime victims, prosecutors argue. Victims, under state law, are guaranteed the right to a "speedy disposition" of their case.
"The current staffing is insufficient, so that there's pleas. People aren't being charged to the fullest extent that they should be because of that challenge," he said.
Nygren said he has talked with the governor's office and has Walker's support. He has not had conversations with members of the Senate, he said.
"We are generally supportive of the bill, but we look forward to evaluating it further," said Walker spokeswoman Amy Hasenberg.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Both chambers have few days set aside to take up bills as the legislative session comes to an end.