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Public defenders talk about struggle to find, keep candidates

By: Michaela Paukner, [email protected]//October 31, 2019//

Public defenders talk about struggle to find, keep candidates

By: Michaela Paukner, [email protected]//October 31, 2019//

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The Wisconsin Public Defenders Office revealed at a hearing on Thursday that it’s struggling to find candidates for public defender positions.

Lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Finance heard from supporters of two bills that would restore equal pay for state public defenders. The state’s latest budget saw state prosecutors receive a pay-progression plan but not public defenders. These latest bills seek to rectify the situation by having nearly $4 million set aside through 2021 to fund pay progression for assistant state public defenders.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, and Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, are the bill authors. They said the legislation are crtical to ensuring justice and guaranteeing constitutional rights in Wisconsin’s court system. Petrowski said there is a shortage of lawyers in Marathon County and said trial delays are common.

Kelli Thompson, Wisconsin state public defender, gave the committee a picture of how the lack of equal pay is already affecting her office. She said four candidates were recently scheduled for interviews at the Wausau office, and all four cancelled beforehand. Thompson said two cited pay limitations and said they were pursuing positions in the district attorney’s office. She said her office has not been able to schedule any interviews for state public defender positions in the past 60 days.

Thompson said the state prosecutor’s office is also recruiting many public defenders. If a state public defender considers a job that is a position of conflict, he or she is required to leave as soon as substantial conversations regarding the position occur. Thompson said this occurred twice in the last week, leaving nearly 250 cases without representation.

Richard Jones, an assistant state public defender, said he has been spoken to about at least two assistant district attorney positions. He said he never considered leaving until recently.

“Prosecutors receive consistent raises, which we’re not always entitled to,” said Jones. “That was something I had to think about at this point in my career. That’s a concern. There are other members of our agency that I’m aware of that are on leave right now as they ponder or are candidates for positions throughout our state.”

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point, asked if the pay progression was enough to not only keep but also attract attorneys to the state public defender’s office.

“I hope so,” said Thompson. “The disparate treatment between the prosecutors and the public defenders is the number one issue we see right now. We don’t want people changing jobs and going to the other side. It’s inefficient, it’s ineffective, and it truly shuts down our justice system.”

For Jones, it was a reminder about the mission of the state public defenders.

“I had a client who was informed that I was considering this job,” said Jones. “He sent me an email saying, ‘Please don’t leave until you get me out.’ It made me remember why I do it. Justice is real, and my job is to fight for them, and I just can’t give up that fight.”


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