By Gretchen Schuldt
District Attorney John Chisholm says he will push for a statewide initiative that would increase state aid to counties that successfully reduce the number of people they are sending to state prisons.
He also said that the high turnover rate among attorneys and support staff in his office "is the single biggest administrative challenge I face."
On the prison alternative initiative, Chisholm, the Milwaukee County prosecutor, said that other states, such as Minnesota and Oregon, "have engaged in this work and have seen dramatic improvements in their criminal justice systems."
Minnesota had about 10,000 prison inmates as of July 1, 2018; Oregon had about 15,000; and Wisconsin had about 24,000, according to figures from each of those states.
The initiative, if it is to work, would require more equitable state revenue sharing and commitments from counties to develop alternatives to incarceration, Chisholm said.
Under the plan, the state would absorb the cost of a certain number of new inmates from each county.
"If they (the counties) send more than their share, then they have to pay the costs associated with it," he said. A state-county cost share already exists in the juvenile corrections area.
The state now absorbs the full cost of housing prison inmates, meaning there is no incentive for counties to try to reduce their share of they prison system's cost. Some counties actually benefit from overcrowded prisons because the state leases local jail space from them to house overflow state inmates.
Chisholm said he envisions a system in which small-population counties could work together to provide services and reduce prison admissions.
There are both practical and moral reasons to reduce the number of inmates flowing into the state's prisons, he said.
"It is the direction we should be going as a state," he said.
On the turnover issue, Chisholm said his office lost 36 lawyers from a staff of 119 over a three-year period.
"They love doing the work," he said. "They are committed to the work."
"It is the direction we should be going in as a state." – Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm
Finances, though, mean they leave, he said. A new assistant district attorney makes about $50,000 per year. Many attorneys leave law school carrying $100,00 to $150,000 in student debt, and many are at the age they start a family and buy a house. The economics don't work.
The higher pay offered by the private sector, or by the Milwaukee City Attorney's Office or the county's Corporation Counsel's office, can be very attractive, Chisholm said.
The state has a 17-year pay scale, he said, but the governor and Legislature have not funded it. After 15 or 16 years, a seasoned prosecutor may make $10,000 or $12,000 more per year than a new prosecutor.
In a profession where different life experiences and perspectives can well serve the community, the low pay for prosecutors may eliminate some of that.
"If you don't address this issue, all you're going to have is what I call 'boutique DAs' – those who can afford to do it," Chisholm said.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
Sign up for the free WJI newsletter.
Help WJI advocate for justice in Wisconsin