A discrepancy in pay for prosecutors and public defenders is threatening to tip the scales of justice in Wisconsin.
Even though representatives of both public prosecutors and public defenders have been seeking merit-based pay progression, the state’s current budget provides it only to prosecutors. Now new bipartisan legislation is meant to rectify the situation before the public defender’s office suffers losses.pay
Plan for parity
The bill asks for nearly $4 million through 2021 to fund a pay-progression plan for assistant state public defenders. The State of Wisconsin Compensation Plan now sets the starting hourly wage for public defenders at $25.14, beginning in January 2019. The new bill would provide an opportunity to receive merit-based pay in addition to this hourly rate.
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, is one of the bill authors and a member of the state’s Joint Committee on Finance, which had a large role in shaping the 2019-21 budget. She said the pay-progression plan for state public defenders was one of many proposals that didn’t receive funding the first time around.
“We can’t have inequities in a system that is supposed to be fully balanced in order to function at its best,” said Loudenbeck. “We want the skilled and experienced talent to stay with the public defenders if that’s where they want to be.”
The bill has received support from 44 legislators in both the Assembly and Senate.
“Everybody in our country has the constitutional right to representation,” said Sen. Tim Carpenter, a Democrat from Milwaukee and another author of the bill. “If we are going to fulfill that constitutional right, we have to attract individuals that can live on a decent salary.
It’s not fair to require people to live in poverty or near poverty in order to do public service.”
Kelli Thompson, state public defender, said restoring parity is essential. She said the department is already seeing increasing turnover.
“The prosecutors have received 55 new positions, and those positions need to be filled,” said Thompson. “Our concern, and what we’re already seeing, is our staff looking at those positions because they will be able to be paid significantly more. We’ve been notified of four separate attorneys in the last 24 hours that are considering moving to their local prosecutor’s offices that will have these openings.”
Pay progression’s importance
Thompson said public defenders, before the state’s latest budget, had earned about 80 cents for every $1 made by prosecutors. Now, without pay progression, they’ll be receiving about 20 cents for prosecutors’ every $1.
“You’re never going to be wealthy being a public defender,” said Thompson. “You have to have passion and desire to do this job. You are giving back to the public, you are giving back to your community, and you are giving back to the individuals that desperately need you.
Having parity and equity is fundamentally important to having our staff public defenders.”
Staff employees have said it seems that the public defender’s office is constantly recruiting new applicants as it loses people to better-paying jobs. The time and money spent on continuously training new people and handing over hundreds of cases has hit rural Wisconsin counties particularly hard.
“If we don’t have staff to do the work representing and advocating on behalf of clients, then the criminal justice system does not work,” Thompson said. “We can’t be the training ground for one another.”
Ben Szilagyi is an assistant state public defender in Winnebago County. He has worked in the Oshkosh public defender’s office for almost nine years and also takes cases from surrounding counties, like Manitowoc and Waushara. He said decided in law school that he wanted to be a public defender. But later money concerns eventually gave him second thoughts.
“When my wife was pregnant with our fourth child, even though I had been working at the public defender’s office for six years, we qualified for WIC and reduced-price school lunch,” Szilagyi said. “It was a daunting realization that I tried to make a career in working for the public defender’s office, but at the same time still qualified for programs pegged on the federal poverty level.”
Szilagyi said pay increases and cost-of-living changes have helped improve his circumstances. But he hopes his story shows why pay progression is needed for state attorneys.
“I don’t want to change jobs,” Szilagyi said. “I don’t want to have to go somewhere else to be an effective provider for my family. If I could stay with the public defender’s office and provide for my family, that’s my ideal.”
The state Assembly and Senate introduced the pay-parity bill in early October and have since referred it to the Joint Committee on Finance. Loudenbeck said because of the bill’s price tag, it’s competing against other spending bills and may not be taken up right away.
“Of course, I want it to move quickly, but at the same time, I believe in the legislative process,” Loudenbeck said. “If it takes a little bit of time to make our case, that’s OK, as long as we get a yes.”
Thompson said she doesn’t believe the wage discrepancy in the budget was intentional.
“Having parity and equity with the people across the aisle from you every day, it’s important,” Thompson said. “This legislation goes a long way in the recognition that our staff are in there every single day fighting the good fight and being compensated for the work that they’re doing.” Follow @WLJReporter