By Gretchen Schuldt
Thirty-six circuit court judges from 18 Wisconsin counties are together publicly supporting a proposal to increase pay for appointed defense lawyers.
"As trial judges, we experience, on a daily basis, the impact that the underfunding of indigent criminal defense has on the quality and integrity of our criminal justice system," Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Glenn H. Yamahiro wrote to the State Supreme Court. Yamahiro was the main author of the letter and was joined by the author judges.
"These impacts often impede our ability to function effectively and efficiently. We have observed a decline in the quality of representation provided to indigent defendants. Many experienced lawyers have discontinued accepting public defender appointments out of economic necessity. As a result we face an increasing number of inexperienced or underqualified lawyers representing indigent defendants in serious criminal matters."
Yamahiro and the 35 other judges were commenting on a petition pending before the Supreme Court that seeks to raise from $40 an hour to $100 an hour the amount paid to lawyers appointed by State Public Defender's Office (SPD) to represent clients who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. SPD makes the appointments when the office has excessive caseloads or conflicts of interest. The Supreme Court will hold a public hearing on the matter May 16.
"It is imperative that our Supreme Court exercise leadership to address the Constitutional Crisis...because the executive and legislative branches of government have failed to address this problem...over the past 40 years," he said.
"We have seen an increasing number of requests for the appointment of new counsel and ineffective assistance of counsel claims," the letter says. "Cases that we are required to continue based upon ineffective assistance of counsel...have negative impacts on crime victims. In many instances, victims often have to endure additional proceedings such as a resentencing or even retrial, in cases that should be closed. ... We believe that it is beyond dispute that the criminal justice system operates at its best when each side has access to quality representation."
The court must take leadership and address the because the executive and legislative branches have failed to do so over the past 40 years, he said.
The 35 other judges signing are:
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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