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Assistant district attorneys need pay raise

Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Sommers delivers closing argument in a homicide trial in Racine County Circuit Court in 2015.

Assistant and deputy district attorneys across Wisconsin deserve a raise, and their offices need more staff.

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, set to take up the issue today, should approve the governor’s request for $4.8 million in salary increases over the next two years to help keep and attract talented crime fighters.

The Legislature’s budget committee also should look for ways to add positions, while at the same time providing greater incentives for public defenders to stay on the job.

Rapidly growing Dane County has 28 prosecutors — about the same as it had in 1985. And relatively low pay combined with large workloads and increasingly complicated cases have led to high turnover. The Dane County District Attorney’s office lost more than a third of its prosecutors in little more than a year.

Elsewhere, in Marinette County, District Attorney Allen Brey just announced he’s resigning because of an unmanageable workload and lack of resources.

District attorneys across Wisconsin had sought $7.9 million for pay raises and an additional $16.2 million to create 113 more prosecutor positions. The governor failed to add more positions in his state budget proposal, but he did include funding for raises of 6.2 percent in each of the next two years.

The jump in pay is justified because starting pay for entry-level prosecutors is just $49,254 — a lot less than lawyers can earn in the private sector. Moreover, many law school graduates still owe tens of thousands of dollars in student debt.

The higher pay would be distributed at least in part on merit, allowing local district attorneys to keep more of their most promising people. The pay scale now for assistant and deputy attorney generals tops out around $120,000, with average pay of $67,800, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Critics of investing more state money in prosecutors worry the result will be more people heading to jails and prisons, some of which are already crowded. That’s possible. But failing to hold dangerous people accountable for their crimes is worse.

And the more likely result is that local district attorneys will do a better job of handling cases expeditiously and professionally. That could actually save some money if fewer people are sitting in jail for long periods of time waiting for their cases to advance.

Brey, Marinette County’s exiting DA, warned that innocent crime victims suffer from stalled cases.

“If you’re a crime victim in this county, you can expect if your case is not immediately filed you will have to wait about two years before it will be,” he said.

That’s unacceptable.

The governor’s proposal on DA pay deserves bipartisan support.

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