The governor should provide federal ARPA funding to help the State Public Defender's office meet the demand for lawyers to defend indigent defendants in criminal cases, WJI told Gov. Evers in a letter Thursday.
The agency has not been able to recruit enough private bar attorneys to represent defendants who cannot afford their own lawyers. The lack of private lawyers willing to take on cases is a perennial problem, but it has reached the crisis stage during the COVID pandemic as courts shut down and cases backed up in the system. Counties around the state are trying to hire the same lawyers for different cases.
"WJI urges you to use available ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money to temporarily increase funding available for private bar attorneys who accept SPD appointments. While state law sets the $70 hourly rate, you can offer designated grants to counties or private agencies to supplement the statutory rate until court backlogs are cleared," WJI Executive Director Gretchen Schuldt said in the letter.
WJI proposed the private bar attorneys receive $150 per hour until the state court backlogs are cleared. Private bar lawyers now are paid $70 per hour. Lawyers who do similar work in Federal Court are paid $155 per hour.
"WJI is aware that money is not the only reason private bar lawyers are not accepting SPD cases. A significant, time-limited increase in the hourly rate will, however, encourage some additional lawyers to take additional SPD cases," Schuldt said. "It will also, significantly, help determine how big an issue pay is in attracting private bar attorneys to indigent defense work."
COVID shut down many courts throughout the state, she said.
"Indigent defendants sat and are still sitting in jail for much, much longer than they would under normal circumstances," Schuldt wrote. "This upends the presumption of innocence and is simply wrong. In addition, studies show that lengthy pre-trial incarceration is a major factor in compelling defendants to plead guilty, even when that is not in their best interest."
"During the pandemic, many judges routinely waived speedy trial deadlines," she said. "This practice raises serious constitutional questions that have not been resolved. Trial delays should not be made longer because the state failed to act to protect defendants’ constitutional rights. The state has an obligation to do everything in its power to ensure that justice is administered fairly, competently, and in a timely manner. To stand by and do nothing while the court system drowns in caseloads is manifestly unjust."
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