“The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours,” announced the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 in first determining that the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution requires states to provide lawyers to the indigent accused facing a potential loss of liberty in a felony case.
That holding has subsequently been extended to prevent the tyranny of government from taking anyone’s liberty unless an effective lawyer is present at every critical stage of a criminal of delinquency case.
However, that noble ideal of equal justice before the law is jeopardized in Wisconsin because the state has refused to pay reasonable fees to the lawyers charged with defending the poor. State government pays indigent defense attorneys the lowest rate in the nation – one that has not change in 20 years when the rate was cut by 20 percent.
A new report by the Sixth Amendment Center determined that Wisconsin private defense attorneys are less willing to take cases because of the rate, and that those who do spend less time on their public cases, file less pre-trial motions, and are more likely to resolve cases by pleading to the offense charged.
I realize that most people do not want to hear that lawyers are not paid enough and that most people would love to be paid $40 per hour (the current state rate). But the up-front costs to operate a law practice in Wisconsin are plentiful, including rent, bar dues, professional liability, etc. Indeed, our own State Bar association determined that it costs a lawyer $41.79 per hour to run a legal business, or slightly more than the total $40 per hour state compensation rate.
As a means of comparison, the 6AC determined that the indigent defense rate paid to Wisconsin lawyers in 2015 is about what the Mississippi Supreme Court determined was needed to keep a law practice open in their state in 1990.
There will be people that claim “so what?” Who cares if “criminals” get a lawyer anyway? We should all care, when financial conflicts abound it is impossible for our courts to appropriately determine guilt from innocence. If an innocent defendant is convicted simply because his lawyer did not have the resources to do the job right, the real perpetrator of the crime remains at large.