By Gretchen Schuldt
The State Legislature has authorized pay raises for lawyers in the State Public Defender's Office that will allow them to regain parity with their counterparts in prosecutors' offices.
The bill will allow SPD to give merit pay increases of more than 10% for fiscal 2021-22. It now awaits Gov. Tony Evers' signature.
The public defender raises will be funded with money already in the SPD budget – partly with money saved because so many people are quitting the agency and partly with money saved due to the drop in caseload during the coronavirus pandemic.
"While these cases are likely to come back at some point, that does not seem likely in the next few months," State Public Defender Kelli Thompson told the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. "In using these savings now, we have the opportunity to fix this disparity without appropriating new funds."
Some 78 staff members have left the office since March 2020, she said.
"Continuing to visit clients and their families in person, going to jails, and in-person court proceedings and the added workload that has been associated with the pandemic has added significant pressure that has increased turnover," Thompson said.
The pay of assistant state public defenders and assistant district attorneys are usually linked, but that link got broken during 2019-2021 budget deliberations – assistant district attorneys got raises, but assistant state public defenders did not. A bill to restore pay period was introduced in the last legislative session, but died when the session ended.
"Throughout the pandemic, SPD attorneys have been working; their offices have remained open and staffed," said State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) and State. Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), authors of the bill, which received bipartisan support. "The global pandemic has not paused the Constitutional rights of poor and indigent clients, which means that SPD attorneys have continued to appear in court, visit clients in custody, and provide professional representation."
When staff members leave, their cases must be reassigned, Thompson said. It takes time to get a new attorney up to speed, she said.
"This impact can have significant ripple effects but in smaller more rural counties it can be that much more pronounced," she said.
Thompson said there also here has also been a drop during the pandemic in the number of private bar attorneys willing to accept SPD appointments to represent indigent clients. Private lawyers are appointed to cases that SPD can't take due to issues such as workloads or conflicts of interest.
The state last year increased the amount it pays private lawyers to $70 per hour, up from the previous rate of $40, which was the lowest in the nation.
The new $70 amount, however, judging from SPD emails seeking private lawyers to take cases, has not been altogether successful in ensuring that defendants get timely representation.
One defendant with three cases pending in Langlade and Forest counties has been waiting for a lawyer for five months, according to an SPD email this week; Langlade County was seeking private lawyers for eight other defendants as well. SPD also recently was looking for lawyers for nine Sheboygan County Circuit Court defendants, 10 Fond du Lac County defendants, and defendants in several other counties as well.
"The need to retain staff at this time is even more critical to ensuring that the rights of defendants, particularly those being held in custody during a pandemic, are protected and that the criminal justice system is not brought to a standstill by lack of counsel," Thompson said.
The State Bar, Americans for Prosperity, the Association of State Prosecutors, and the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association also supported the bill.
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