By Gretchen Schuldt
The new "Marsy's Law" victims' rights amendment to the state constitution is driving up costs for Milwaukee County at the same time state funding for victim-witness services is declining, according to District Attorney John Chisholm.
"In effect it is an unfunded mandate on the county," Chisholm told the County Board's Finance Committee during a budget hearing.
WJI, three individual voters, and Sen. Fred Risser are suing to overturn the amendment, approved by voters in April. The plaintiffs argue that the ballot question failed to fully and fairly inform the public of the essential components of the amendment, misstated the contents and impact of the amendment, and improperly encompassed more than one subject. A decision in the case is pending.
Chisholm, during the committee meeting, said the full impact of Marsy's Law is unclear. Marsy's Law allows alleged crime victims a variety of specific rights, including the right to be involved in every court proceeding.
"To be cautious, that means they've got they've got to be notified of every single hearing," he said in an interview. That includes purely procedural hearings that do not address the merits of the case.
The right to be heard is the only new right specifically granted to alleged victims, he said. Others included in the amendment were already in state law.
County Executive David Crowley has proposed spending $224,000 to hire three victim witness advocates and a secretarial assistant to handle the additional workload Marsy's Law is generating.
"The time commitment for our victim advocates and prosecutors has risen exponentially," Chisholm said.
Meanwhile, the state reimbursement rate for victim-witness services has been dropping for years. State statute provides for up to 90% reimbursement of qualified costs, but actual reimbursements peaked at 61% in 2010-2011, according to a 2019 Legislative Fiscal Bureau paper. It now is 42%, Chisholm said.
To qualify for reimbursement, counties must provide numerous services to victims and witnesses, including notification services, compensation and social service referrals, escort and transportation services if necessary, employer intercession services, and protection services.
Victim-witness reimbursements to counties are entirely funded from surcharges levied on people convicted of crimes. The money those surcharges generate is falling increasingly short of the reimbursable expenses counties around the state are incurring.
The logical step, Chisholm said in the interview, would be to "disassociate (reimbursements) from court fees."
The county also is facing an unexpected $511,00 cut in state-administered federal funding under the Victims of Crime Acts grant, according to Chisholm and budget documents. The county is expecting about $451,000 next year, according the proposed budget. Chisholm said his office was initially informed that there would be more funding available next year, but the state decided instead to direct additional funding to nonprofit groups.
Total revenue for the District Attorney's office is expected to drop by $867,401 next year. Crowley is proposing to close the gap by increasing tax levy support by $525,479 and cutting spending by $341,922. Most of that savings would come from cutting personnel spending, although the number of full-time positions would increase by two, to 164.
The overall budget would decrease from $12,608,664 this year to $12,266,742 under Crowley's proposal, a decline of 2.7%.
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