Gov. Evers this week signed bills imposing harsher sentences for reckless driving and carjacking.
“Reckless driving and other dangerous behaviors are putting our kids, families, and communities at risk all across our state, and we must do more at the state level to address dangerous behavior on our roads,” he said in a press release.
Senate Bill 76, now Wisconsin Act 10, increases the maximum penalty for carjacking from 40 years in prison to 60 years in prison. It also recognizes and defines carjacking as a separate crime.
Assembly Bill 55, now Wisconsin Act 9, increases penalties for several driving-related offenses.
WJI has written about both measures previously, here and here.
Evers also complained that the Joint Finance Committee stripped some traffic-related items from his proposed state budget. Those measures, he said, included:
By Gretchen Schuldt
Lawyers in the State Public Defender's office would get pay raises, as would private bar attorneys who agree to represent indigent clients, under Gov. Evers' proposed 2023-25 budget.
The agency, though, would lose 63 federally funded attorney positions while gaining 50 support staff jobs. The total number of full-time positions would drop by 13 over the biennium, from 682.85 this fiscal year to 669.85 in 2025. It would also put additional pressure on lawyers already struggling with high caseloads.
Evers' budget would increase the starting pay for assistant state public defenders from $26.70 per hour to $35, the same amount he proposed for assistant district attorneys. Wisconsin's pay is well below that of many other states, including those of Montana ($36.96 per hour), South Dakota ($39.59), Texas ($40.87) and Oregon ($43.60) according to the agency's budget request.
SPD has had difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff attorneys, according to the request.
"Despite a significant increase in the number of attorney positions posted for recruitment, there has been a decrease in the number of individual applications," the agency said.
SPD attorney applications
The pay for private lawyers who agree to represent SPD clients when staff lawyers have conflicts or workload issues would increase from $70 per hour to $100 per hour and $50 per hour for travel, under Evers' budget. SPD requested a rate of $125 per hour for in-court work, $100 for out-of-court work, and $50 for travel. The travel rate is now $25 per hour.
"The current $70 per hour rate has been cited by private bar attorneys as one of the main factors in their decisions to not accept SPD case appointments," SPD said in its budget request. Counties pay at least $100 per hour when judges appoint lawyers, SPD said, giving counties a competitive advantage when seeking lawyers to take cases.
"The number of attorneys who have actively taken public defender appointments has declined significantly during the pandemic, from 940 attorneys certified in January 2019 to only 772 attorneys in August 2022, a 17.9% decrease," SPD said.
There now are about 770 lawyers on the appointments list, but 13% did not take any cases in fiscal 2022 and 39% took fewer than 26.
"The average number of contacts statewide that it takes to appoint a private bar attorney is just over 123. In some counties, it can be more than 200, with the outliers taking more than 1,000 contacts to appoint a single case," the agency said. "There is not a county or jurisdiction in the state that has not felt these effects."
It is not clear that $100 an hour will be enough to attract attorneys to take the appointments. Clio, a legal practices management firm, said in its Legal Trends Report in 2021 that the average billing rate for Wisconsin lawyers of any type is $248, and nationally the average hourly rate for criminal defense lawyers is $181, the request said.
Evers refused SPD's request for $687,000 for additional expert witness expenses, even though those costs have risen 311% since 2010. He instead said the agency should reallocate funds from other areas.
SPD expert witness costs
He also recommended reallocating funds to cover the $402,000 in new funding SPD requested for increased costs related to transcripts, copying, discovery, and interpreters. The requested increase was the amount of the shortfall in that budget in fiscal 2022.
SPD transcript, interpreter, and discovery costs
Evers again proposed legalizing marijuana, as he has in the past. He also proposed "requiring a diversion and restitution alternative for certain misdemeanor offenses" but did not identify what those were. SPD proposed a diversion program for disorderly conduct offenses if the defendant has not been convicted of a felony and has not been convicted of a similar offense in the past three years.
SPD handled 4,896 disorderly conduct cases in fiscal 2022, it said in its budget request. Under its proposal, about half of those could have been diverted, saving taxpayers $1.3 million.
Overall, under Evers' proposal, the SPD budget would increase from $114.7 million this year to $137 million in fiscal 2025, an increase of $22.3 million, or 19.4%.
By Gretchen Schuldt
The Republican-led Legislature is full-speed ahead on bills to crack down on reckless driving by subjecting some offenders to immediate impoundment of their cars and substantially increasing the forfeitures imposed on reckless-driving offenses.
The Assembly Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is holding a hearing on the bills on Tuesday in Madison.
Here is a rundown of some of the latest justice-related bills introduced.
Senate Bill 75/Assembly Bill 54 – Implementing cash bail changes yet to be adopted
Voters will decide in April whether people accused of certain crimes may be held in jail without bail prior to a determination of whether they are guilty of any crime at all, but that is not stopping Republican legislators from taking their first swing at deciding what kind of criminal charges would qualify a person for higher bail or no bail at all.
Currently, cash bail is meant to ensure that a person appears in court, protect members of the community from serious bodily harm, or prevent the intimidation of witnesses.
The constitutional amendment would allow judges to consider more factors when ordering and setting bail, including whether the person is accused of a "violent crime," however the legislature defines that, and the need to protect community members from "serious harm" (not just serious bodily harm), and however the legislature defines that.
Under the bill, "serious harm" would include property damage or economic loss of over $2,500, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau. It also would include any personal physical pain or injury, any illness, any impairment of physical condition, or death. It would include mental anguish or emotional harm related to the injury, illness, or death.
Currently, theft of less than $2,500 is a misdemeanor, but a separate bill would make theft of more than $1,000 a felony. That bill also is set for the public hearing on Tuesday.
The bill defines "violent crime" to include offenses including homicide, aggravated and special circumstances battery, mayhem, sexual assault, false imprisonment, human trafficking, hostage-taking, kidnapping, stalking, disarming a police officer, arson, felony burglary, and carjacking, according to the LRB. It also would include crimes where a domestic abuse or dangerous weapon penalty enhancer could be applied; the violation of a domestic abuse, child abuse, or harassment injunction; or the solicitation, conspiracy, or attempt to commit a Class A felony, the state's most serious felony classification.
While the bill would prohibit "excessive" bail, that is undefined.
Senate Bill 76/Assembly Bill 52 – Calling out carjacking
The maximum penalty for carjacking would be increased by 20 years in prison, under this bill. Taking a vehicle without the owner's consent, with a weapon and use or threat of force, is now punishable by up to 40 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. This bill creates a separate offense of carjacking and increases the maximum penalty to up to 60 years in prison.
Senate Bill 90/Assembly Bill 55 – Increasing reckless-driving forfeitures
This bill would increase the forfeiture for first-offense reckless driving from the current range of $25 to $200 to $50 to $400.
The penalty for the second or subsequent offense would jump from the current fine of $40 to $500 to a fine of $100 to $1,000 if the second or subsequent offense is committed within four years. Currently, the increased fine applies only to offenses that occur within one year of the first offense. The additional potential penalty of a year in jail remains unchanged.
The $435 driver improvement surcharge and the $50 safe ride surcharge also would be imposed on people convicted of reckless driving.
Other changes to fines and forfeitures proposed in the bill are shown in the chart below.
Senate Bill 92/Assembly Bill 56 – Impounding some vehicles used in reckless-driving offenses
This bill would allow communities to adopt ordinances allowing police to immediately impound a vehicle used in a reckless driving offense if the driver owns the vehicle and has not fully paid an earlier forfeiture for a reckless driving conviction.
Four new circuit court branches would be opened by August, costing the state $1.1 million in fiscal 2024 and $1.2 million the following year, under Gov. Evers' proposed 2023-25 state budget.
Establishing the branches would comply with 2019 Act 184, which allows the director of state courts to select the counties that will get the new branches.
Evers also included $840,800 over the two years to fund additional, undefined costs associated with the new courts.
Eight new state employees would staff the branches. Other employees, such as deputy court clerks, are hired at county expense.
Other items included in Evers' proposed courts budget include:
Overall, the circuit court budget, under the proposal, would increase from $116 million this fiscal year, to $118.1 million in fiscal 2024, an increase of $2.1 million, or 1.8%. It would drop to $117.2 million in 2025, a decline of 0.7% from the 2024 amount and a 1% increase from this year's budget.
Evers' court proposal includes policy items proposed in other agency budgets. WJI will include them in the discussion of those budgets.
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