Criminal Justice budget proposal

Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, with state public defender Kelli Thompson.

Assembly Republicans are asking Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to include measures in his first state budget to increase pay for attorneys who defend defendants who can't afford to hire their own. 

Private attorneys who represent indigent criminal defendants when the State Public Defender's office can't take the case are paid $40 an hour — the lowest rate in the country, and one that hasn't been changed since 1995. Republican lawmakers are proposing an increase to $70 an hour.

Assembly Republicans are also supporting efforts to fund 61 new assistant district attorney positions and increase pay for assistant district attorneys, state public defenders and correctional officers. 

The Republican proposal would also increase funding for treatment alternatives and diversion (TAD) programs, which provide alternatives to prison sentences for criminal offenders with substance abuse problems, and would expand worker training. reentry programs and health initiatives. 

"These initiatives are tough but smart on crime," said Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who discussed the proposal at a news conference at the state Capitol with State Public Defender Kelli Thompson, Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg and Director of State Courts Judge Randy Koschnick. 

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack also backs the effort, which she said in a statement would "support essential constitutional guarantees." 

Born did not share additional specifics on the proposal, including the proposed pay increases for corrections officers, ADAs and public defenders, but said the proposal would cost about $50 million over the course of the two-year budget cycle.

Last month, six plaintiffs filed a federal class-action lawsuit arguing their rights to an attorney and a speedy trial are being violated. The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs, facing charges in Ashland and Bayfield counties, have had to wait in jail from 21 to 75 days as they wait for an attorney to take their cases. 

Thompson said the Republican proposal would "enable all of us in the criminal justice system to work together to protect Wisconsin’s communities and guarantee the constitutional rights of individuals."

"The governor has said all along that criminal justice reform is an area where Democrats and Republicans should be able to work together," said Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback in statement. "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. We look forward to working with criminal justice reform advocates and legislators on both sides of the aisle to get this done in the governor’s budget."

Born was one of the lawmakers behind an effort last year to fund 54 new assistant district attorney positions in 40 counties. The effort passed the Assembly but died in the Senate. 

National guidelines recommend counties have one prosecutor for every 10,000 residents. A 2016 workload analysis showed 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.

In an interview last week, Attorney General Josh Kaul said he supports increasing funding for assistant district attorneys, increasing reimbursement rates for public defenders and other proposals requested by a coalition that includes the state Department of Justice, State Public Defender’s Office, Wisconsin District Attorney’s Association, Association of State Prosecutors and Director of State Court’s Office.

"It’s important that cases be prosecuted in a timely fashion and that they not be delayed because there’s a shortage of prosecutors, and that’s important to public safety, it’s important for victims of crime, and it’s also important for the system to work effectively," Kaul said."When any part of the system is not funded appropriately, it has impacts on the system as a whole."

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