Attorneys who take public-defender cases in rural Wisconsin could receive as much as $20,000 a year in student-loan repayments under a proposed bill.
The Assembly Committee on Judiciary held a public hearing on a pilot program promising student-loan payments to rural public defenders. Assembly Bill 512 would set aside $250,000 to help attorneys pay back their students loans while they work in sparsely populated parts of the state.
The program would repay up to $20,000 a year in student loans to private attorneys who do the majority of their work in Wisconsin counties with fewer than 25,000 residents. The attorney would have to take a minimum of 50 public defender cases a year.
Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, and Kelli Thompson, state public defender, said the program was being driven in large part by statistics. Testin said about 54 percent of Wisconsin attorneys practice in Dane, Waukesha and Milwaukee counties. Meanwhile, many rural attorneys are taking on 125 percent of the bar association’s recommendation for a maximum case load.
Thompson said a State Bar of Wisconsin review found 15 counties have 10 or fewer attorneys practicing law. She said in 2019, the State Public Defenders office paid $668,000 in travel costs to bring attorneys to rural counties to represent clients. Thompson believes the loan-repayment program will draw attorneys to rural areas, reducing both the office’s costs and defendants’ wait times for representation.
“Even maxing it out — if 12 and a half attorneys were able to take this on in those rural counties — that would be significant for us,” Thompson said.
Rep. Marisabel Cabrera, D-Milwaukee, asked if the program could be extended to any attorney willing to take a position in the public defender’s office.
“I think where we’re starting is just a pilot,” Thompson said. “We’ve made it so it is scalable. We’re hoping that the legislature gives us this opportunity where we see the most need just for bodies.”
The committee also heard testimony on a bill to clarify standards for attorneys who accept public-defender appointments.
Thompson said the goal is to provide additional ways to certify, de-certify and re-certify attorneys who want to take on public-defender cases. Thompson said the regulations are currently in different places, and this bill would make it easier for people to reference the requirements. Follow @WLJReporter