Public defenders definitely deserve a raise. The $40-per-hour rate for private lawyers appointed by the Public Defender’s Office is the lowest in the nation and hasn’t increased since 1995.
As a result, indigent defendants who qualify for state-appointed attorneys sometimes wait for weeks if not months for representation, especially in rural areas.
An Ashland man is suing the state because he sat in jail for 75 days before getting an attorney. He and others contend their constitutional rights to a lawyer and a speedy trial were violated.
Better pay for public defenders, as Assembly Republicans proposed this week, will help make our judicial system more fair and efficient. Assembly Republicans want the rate for private attorneys to increase to $70 an hour. Private attorneys handle about 40 percent of the public defender’s caseload. The GOP lawmakers also want to raise the pay for state public defender staff attorneys.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers sounds supportive of the Assembly proposals. So is Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack. The state Senate should get on board, too.
Another part of the Assembly’s $50 million plan would increase the number of assistant district attorneys across the state, and give current assistant DAs a raise. That’s easily justified, given the high volume of cases most prosecutors handle.
In Dane County, for example, the District Attorney’s Office has had virtually the same number of prosecutors — 28 — for more than 30 years. During that same time, the county’s population has grown from about 300,000 people to more than 500,000. Many cases today are more complicated, with high-tech evidence. And heavy workloads and stagnant pay have contributed to lots of turnover among staff.
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said Tuesday he’s glad lawmakers recognize the problem, and he hopes some of the 61 positions Assembly Republicans want to add across the state will be assigned to fast-growing Dane County.
Ozanne said the goal isn’t to lock up more people. It’s to handle the most serious cases with the time and resources they deserve. More prosecutors also should improve efficiency and help retain experienced staff. He added that jail diversion programs would be enhanced by more prosecutors because properly assessing potential participants for such programs takes time and confidence to do right.
According to staffers for Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, who sits on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, the distribution of the 61 new positions hasn’t been determined yet. We trust Assembly Republicans will recognize the needs in rural areas as well as Wisconsin’s second-largest county.
Higher pay and more people to support our courts should be included in the next state budget.