Dodge County’s district attorney resigned effective Friday, January 13, 2023. Another prosecutor also left on Friday, and a retiring prosecutor’s last day is today, Tuesday, January 17. With that, Dodge County is left with no regular prosecutor staff and only its managing attorney, who will retire February 1.
The office usually consists of five prosecutors plus the managing attorney.
For the near future, the county’s prosecution team will consist of three part-time retirees brought in to help temporarily. “They’re a Band-Aid” said now-former District Attorney Kurt Klomberg on Friday about 90 minutes before he left office. “Our long-term staff is all gone," he said.
Already, several trials have been adjourned, and “there are people who are going to sit in jail,” he said. “This is a very bad situation for Dodge County."
The staffing crisis is the result of too few applications for open positions, with low pay being a major factor. “The inability to get applicants caused this collapse," Klomberg said.
The Dodge County prosecutor staffing crisis arose from a cascade of retirements and the inability to fill those positions with new attorneys.
Klomberg and his staff several years ago recognized that based on the career stages of three attorneys there would be a series of retirements after 2020. They started working on a succession plan six years ago and thought they had “everything lined up.”
The first retirement was scheduled for July 2022. That prosecutor handled drunk-driving prosecutions, and before the retirement Klomberg paired the retiring attorney with another assistant district attorney (ADA) to learn the practice.
Initially, because of the retiring attorney’s leave benefit that kept him on the payroll for about six months, the position could not be filled right away. Klomberg had planned for that and thought the office could cover that time period.
Then came a “curveball,” said Klomberg, when the ADA being trained informed him of the need for extended family leave in the fall. That attorney is not scheduled to return until mid-February.
Klomberg received permission to fill the retiree’s position early. But the problem then became a dearth of applicants. One applicant withdrew and another took a position in a different county.
Klomberg next received permission to offer more than the minimum hiring amount. But by November there were still no applicants.
At that point, the two other attorneys who had been holding off on retirement announced their end dates.
The office was down to two prosecuting attorneys: Klomberg and one ADA.
Klomberg tried to determine how to handle all of the Dodge County’s prosecutorial work with two attorneys. The Dodge County District Attorney’s Office files between 1,100 and 1,300 criminal cases each year.
Then the remaining ADA soon told him she was taking a position elsewhere. Her last day would be Friday, January 13. That ADA is heading to an office offering a shorter commute and a better quality of life. She won’t have to help cover about 1,200 cases before four judges, he said.
Towards the end of December, Klomberg asked the state’s Department of Justice for help, but there was “no cadre of attorneys to step in,” he said.
He asked other district attorneys for help. One turned him down because that office was also experiencing an attorney shortage. Another said help was possible, though Klomberg knew that wouldn’t work long term.
Klomberg said he saw two choices.
One, he could try to handle all of the county’s prosecution work himself. That would mean committing “daily acts of malpractice” and not being a proper father to his children.
No single attorney can handle 1,200 cases properly or handle that level of stress, he said. He noted that ADAs commonly handle 200 cases. Victims deserve better, as do defendants, who need prosecutors who properly scrutinize cases, he said.
Plus, with that choice “I cannot meet my obligations to my family at all,” he said.
Two, he could resign and hopefully “force the state’s hand” to address the staffing problems.
Klomberg said the base starting salary of $56,000 for prosecutors is not competitive in the current economy. “No one goes into government lawyering to get rich, but they need to be able to make a living,” he said.
Plus, although people still want to be prosecutors, they can make more money by working in other government departments. Klomberg pointed to Dodge County child support attorneys who are offered more than $80,000, and corporation counsel who make more than that.
Klomberg said “this is not a unique story.” He is concerned that other counties’ ADA staff will collapse as well. “A number of (district attorney) offices are teetering on the brink,” he said. Klomberg said on Friday that there were 48 open ADA positions in the state.
Prosecutors and a coalition of other justice-related offices are asking for the starting salary for prosecutors to be raised to $72,000, he said, though that is still not at the level of other government positions.
Klomberg noted that the pay issue exists for State Public Defender’s Office (SPD) attorneys, too. “Don’t miss the public defenders in this,” he said. “Both sides have to be healthy or the system just does not work,” he said.
Because prosecuting and defending attorneys in criminal court have similar skills, the district attorneys’ offices and SPD often compete for the same people at $56,000, he said. Klomberg indicated that the coalition of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association, SPD, Wisconsin Courts, and the Wisconsin Department of Justice has submitted a budget request seeking an increase in salaries for both prosecutors and public defenders.
Klomberg is “deeply concerned” for the next Dodge County DA, who will walk into the job already having to fill four attorney positions and likely will not have institutional knowledge of the office. Klomberg was DA for 12 years.
The Dodge County DA’s Office has gone from about 135 to 145 years of prosecutorial experience to about 10 when the attorney on leave returns, he said.
Klomberg also is concerned about other DAs offices that are operating with skeletal staff. The staffing issue for his office occurred very quickly, and other several offices are at similar risk.
Klomberg, a Republican, said the collapse of the Dodge County DA’s Office highlights the need for proper funding of prosecutors and public defenders after years of neglect.
He urges Wisconsinites to contact their state legislators to fix the funding issue by supporting the budget requests of the coalition.
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