By Gretchen Schuldt
Defendants in criminal cases are sitting in jail for a month or more without legal representation because private lawyers are unwilling to take the cases at the low $40-per-hour rate offered by the State Public Defender's Office, according to a Bayfield County circuit judge.
"I find it hard to conclude that allowing someone to be held in custody without legal representation for that long is something other than a constitutional crisis,” Circuit Judge John P. Anderson wrote in a letter to the Supreme Court.
Anderson wrote to support a proposal to increase to $100 per hour the amount the state pays to private attorneys appointed by the State Public Defender's Office to represent clients who can't afford a lawyer. The Public Defender's Office makes the appointment when it has too many cases or has a conflict.
Private attorneys performing the same type of indigent defense work in the federal system are paid $140 per hour.
If a defendant sit too long, Anderson wrote, he feels compelled to appoint a lawyer, at county expense, for more than $40 an hour.
"It is ... becoming an unfunded mandate imposed upon the counties, requiring that they shoulder the costs which are supposed to be covered by the state through the public defender’s office," he wrote.
Anderson compared the amount paid to the lawyers to other professionals frequently paid by the courts. Psychiatrists and psychologists are paid $983 per hour and $542 per hour, respectively, he said.
"I have had lawyers appointed by the public defender’s office, often with years of experience, sitting in court getting paid $40.00/hour cross-examining a psychiatrist getting paid $983.36/hour and both are being paid by tax dollars," he said. "I find it difficult to justify such disparity. “
The Supreme Court has scheduled a May 16 public hearing on the pay hike proposal. By the time the Court formally set the hearing and directed that it be advertised, however, the deadline for submitting comments had passed.
The Court’s order came on April 5; the comments deadline was April 4.
The Wisconsin Justice Initiative has asked the Court to extend the comment deadline.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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