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Prosecutors reject furloughs, layoffs possible (UPDATE)

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

John Chisholm, Milwaukee County District Attorney, makes a statement during a news conference at the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board in Madison on April 11. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King)

John Chisholm, Milwaukee County District Attorney, makes a statement during a news conference at the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board in Madison on April 11. Chisholm said Thursday the DOA's move to force furloughs on attorneys violates prosecutors' contracts. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin district attorneys are bracing for a state-mandated work reduction for their assistant prosecutors, with some saying the “idiotic” move could mean crippling delays across the state’s criminal justice system.

The state Department of Administration warned hundreds of assistant district attorneys that a 20 percent work reduction will be enforced starting Sunday after their union refused to take six more furlough days.

The cutbacks may be too much for Wisconsin’s chronically understaffed district attorney offices, resulting in widespread delays, from initial appearances to plea hearings, said union president David Feiss.

“If in fact this does come to pass, you may have situations where the state can’t handle speedy trial requests,” said Feiss, an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County. “It will take longer for cases to get reviewed and processed. There will be drags and potential shutdowns in the criminal justice system.”

It’s the latest clash between the state Department of Administration and the assistant prosecutors union, which have been fighting for two years over how many unpaid furlough days union members must take.

Former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, issued an executive order in June 2009 ordering all state workers to take 16 furlough days before June 30 this year to help ease a projected $6.6 billion state budget deficit. The DOA negotiated contract amendments to permit the furlough days with all the state employee unions — except the assistant prosecutors. Their contract allows only 10 temporary layoff days over the two-year budget, and they refused to take the remaining six.

The DOA warned the union last month that if members didn’t take those six days, the state may have to pay other state employees about $12 million in reimbursements under parity clauses in their contracts.

To achieve the same savings, the agency proposed the work reduction, but warned it could bump some prosecutors to part-time status and force them to pay more for benefits. Since the DOA would classify the reduction as a layoff, seniority rules in the union’s contract would come into play and about two dozen probationary assistants would lose their jobs.

With their bosses behind them, the assistants voted again Tuesday not to take the six days. If nothing changes, the work reductions are likely just days away.

Sheboygan County District Attorney Joe DeCecco said he plans to deal with the “idiotic” reduction by telling his six assistants not to work Fridays before June 30. The move will mean delays in about 70 cases, he said in a statement.

“Don’t they realize that prosecutors are the last link in police investigations?” DeCecco said. “That no matter how many investigations and arrests are made by police that no case is filed in court, no justice is done until a prosecutor acts?”

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said Thursday that he told his staff to continue working full time. He said the DOA’s move violates prosecutors’ lawful contract.

“I believe the assistant district attorneys are being treated dishonorably,” he said. “We will not jeopardize public safety, nor will we lose faith with the people we are sworn to protect.”

DOA spokeswoman Carla Vigue said in a statement Thursday that the department would rather see the assistant districts attorneys, or ADAs, take furlough days, but the agency doesn’t want to spend the $12 million to reimburse other workers.

“Most … state employees have sacrificed equally by taking the required furlough days over the last two years, except for the ADAs,” DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch wrote in a letter to district attorneys.

Marinette County District Attorney Allen Brey sent a letter to Huebsch on Wednesday saying the reduction would mean a loss of 37 hours per week for his assistants. He asked Huebsch what crimes he should stop prosecuting, suggesting misdemeanors and perhaps drunken driving.

“Cuts have consequences,” Brey wrote.

In a show of support, the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association told the DOA that it couldn’t implement layoffs without district attorneys’ consent. A work reduction could jeopardize justice for victims, the association said, pointing to a 2007 state audit that found district attorneys needed about 120 additional staffers to handle rising caseloads.

“To ask our offices to absorb six furlough days within a very short period of time ignores the demands of our workload, not to mention the critical importance of our work,” the association’s executive board said.

Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

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