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Lawmakers OK additional money for state public defenders

A powerful panel of lawmakers has endorsed using an additional $3.4 million to give merit raises to assistant state public defenders.

That money comes in addition to the $480,700 the panel had agreed in June to put toward pay progression for public defenders. Critics then complained about that proposal, saying it would only further the differences between two groups of government attorneys, noting that prosecutors were getting $4.7 million more for pay progression.

Various observers argue there should be no disparity in compensation for lawyers in the two groups. Some also said the proposal approved in June would do little to low the public defender’s office’s high rate of turnover.

On Thursday, the state’s Joint Committee on Finance voted, as part of larger motion on the agency’s budget, to send more money to the State Public Defender. Now, if approved by the full Legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker, the new proposal would set aside an additional $1.28 million in 2017-18 and $2.13 million in 2018-19 for merit-based for assistant state public defenders.

State Public Defender Kelli Thompson said Thursday that the committee’s actions will help her office retain lawyers. She noted that state prosecutors have also struggled with turnover.

Separately, the motion approved Thursday signed off on the governor’s recommendation to provide $81,800 each year in the biennium to pay for transcripts, discovery and interpreters. And it adopted Walker’s proposal to eliminate current law that requires court reporters or circuit court clerks to be paid for handling transcripts or court records.

The committee also adopted Walker’s recommendation to spend $3.4 million a year on private bar appointments. These sorts of appointments are made when the state public defender’s office finds that it – for whatever reason – cannot represent an indigent client. In such instances, private lawyers are often turned to. By statute, these lawyers are to be paid $40 an hour.

Although that is one of the lowest rates in the country for such services, the Joint Committee on Finance did nothing to change it on Thursday. Even so, there is a pending petition before the Wisconsin Supreme Court asking the justices to put pressure on the Legislature to increase that rate.

About Erika Strebel, [email protected]

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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