Wisconsin attorney general candidate Brad Schimel is proposing moving state administrative duties for prosecutors from the Department of Administration to the Department of Justice.
Schimel, Waukesha County’s district attorney and the Republican attorney general candidate, said the DOJ is better equipped to advocate for prosecutors statewide.
The DOA’s State Prosecutors Office is responsible for, among other things, developing a biennial budget request for the DAs and researching the potential effects of legislation. It also bills counties for expenses incurred by a prosecutor paid for by a grant. It has one full-time staffer, office director Philip Werner, and other support services such as payroll are performed by DOA staff.
“We are a very small piece of what the DOA does,” Schimel said. “We just don’t get a lot of priority. We don’t have advocacy through the DOA, and that’s led to some problems.”
In large part, Schimel’s proposal seeks to address shortages the DOA has identified in the number of assistant district attorneys employed statewide. A study compiled this year by the State Prosecutors Office found Wisconsin needs about 130 more prosecutors to handle the number of cases county district attorneys’ offices across the state are asked to take on.
The shortage is spread unevenly among offices. For example, Milwaukee County has 112 percent of the prosecutors it needs, while Sheboygan County has 65 percent, according to the report.
But Schimel said prosecutors, as it stands, are too spread out and do not have one voice to lobby legislators before laws are passed. There are organizations, such as the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association and the Wisconsin Association of State Prosecutors, but he said other agencies, such as the State Public Defender’s Office and the DOJ, have louder voices because they employ legislative liaisons.
Schimel pointed to Act 224, which was passed and signed during the last session, as an example. The law created mandatory minimum penalties for drunken-driving crashes that cause substantial injury and for seventh- to 10th-offense charges of drunken driving. But while drafting the bill, legislators cut text from existing laws, preventing prosecutors from pursuing criminal charges for simple injury crashes.
“If we had the kind of legislative liaison that other organizations … (have), we would have been there,” Schimel said, adding that he and other prosecutors have been told the law will be fixed in January.
Schimel said the DOJ’s staff would be able to lobby the Legislature more than the DOA does, since both have similar goals.
He also said his proposal would ensure there would be more oversight of the Special Prosecutors Fund, which receives about $250,000 a year from the budget. He said judges often give permission to prosecutors to use the money when their caseloads are too large, and that is not allowed by state law.
Better oversight, he said, would ensure that the fund is used for when an assistant district attorney is out of the office for an illness and somebody is needed to take his or her place.
Schimel’s proposal would need legislative support and needs to be signed by Gov. Scott Walker to go into effect. To get it done early in the next session, which starts in January, would be “ambitious,” he said.
A message left for a spokeswoman at Gov. Scott Walker’s office was not immediately returned.
David Feiss, a Milwaukee County prosecutor and president of the Association of State Prosecutors, said the organization has not taken a position on the proposal. But he said he has met with outgoing Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s office to talk about better advocating for more money to hire DAs.
He also said that the DOA’s oversight of state prosecutors is a bit peculiar.
“We’re an anomaly in the DOA and obviously a lot of what we do aligns more closely with the DOJ,” Feiss said.
Democratic candidate Susan Happ’s campaign did not immediately return a request for comment.Follow @eheisigWLJ