By Steve Schuster
Wisconsin inched closer to the light at the end of the tunnel in preventing a constitutional crisis Tuesday in Madison.
Wage increases unveiled Wednesday by Wisconsin Republican lawmakers called for a substantial pay increase for Assistant District Attorneys and Public Defenders, slightly surpassing the increase proposed in Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’ budget.
Under the Wisconsin GOP proposal, wages would increase for Public Defenders and Assistant District Attorneys to $36 an hour. The Joint Committee on Finance (JFC) unanimously passed the increase Tuesday.
“We are incredibly grateful for the JFC’s unanimous vote and the leadership from the Co-Chairs, Senator Marklein and Representative Born. This represents a transformational investment in public safety and prosecutors. We expect this will stabilize the prosecutor ranks allowing us to recruit and retain excellent prosecutors to work together with law enforcement to keep dangerous criminals off our street and find justice for crime victims and our community,” said Fond Du Lac County District Attorney Eric Toney. Toney also serves as President of the Wisconsin District Attorneys’ Association.
Gov. Evers had previously proposed an increase to $35 an hour for Public Defenders and Assistant District Attorneys.
On May 16, Evers Tweeted, “As the Joint Finance Committee is set to meet today, I urge them to join me in making unprecedented investments in bolstering our justice workforce, including pay increases for assistant district attorneys, public defenders, and other key positions.”
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told the Wisconsin Law Journal on May 5 that he supports a “substantial” pay raise for Wisconsin Assistant District Attorneys (ADA’s).
“We have been working in our caucus to do a substantial raise, because we need to make sure we keep the people who are already there,” Vos said.
During a May 5, 2023 Milwaukee Press Club event, the Wisconsin Law Journal asked Vos: Given law students are graduating with significant student loan debt and are taking on serious cases as ADA’s, does he support increasing the current wages for Assistant District Attorneys.
In response, Vos said he supports raising the current starting wage of $27.24 per hour that Wisconsin Assistant District Attorneys currently earn.
“We just did a salary study for the State Legislature. … it made me realize that for a lot of these jobs, we have to think differently to attract the best and brightest people,” Vos said.
Vos also said, Gov. Tony Evers made a mistake by not proposing a high enough salary increase for Assistant District Attorneys.
“Gov. Evers proposed an increase and I think he made a mistake … he proposed an either $7 or $9 an hour pay increase, but it capped out. So, the highest paid people would basically get nothing (as far as a pay increase). Well, those are the most productive people doing the most cases,” Vos said noting that Evers proposal was to increase pay for new Assistant District Attorney hires, and Vos wants to increase pay for existing senior District Attorneys as well.
Evers had proposed an $8 an hour pay increase for starting ADA’s.
As previously reported by The Wisconsin Law Journal in March, Wisconsin is on the brink of a constitutional crisis, as courts face unprecedented District Attorney and Public Defender shortages across the state.
Republican Sen. André Jacque said he too supports the increase during an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal back in March.
“It’s certainly an issue with our criminal justice system in terms of having adequate resources. I think there is pretty broad support for addressing the overall needs of the court system,” Jacque said during an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal.
“There have been a lot of signals from all parties. I’m not aware of anyone fighting what was jointly proposed,’ Jacque added.
Across the political aisle, Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Chris Larson previously told the Wisconsin Law Journal in March that he supports Evers’ proposed $8 pay increase for state public defenders and assistant district attorneys.
“Wisconsin’s criminal justice system is in the midst of a staffing crisis at nearly every level. Given the fact that two-thirds of residents in local jails nationwide are being held pre-trial, having enough public defenders and assistant DAs to provide a speedy trial to these individuals is critical. I applaud Governor Evers for addressing this need in his biennial budget proposal, and I hope my Republican colleagues will agree to support it,” Larson said.
In March, The Wisconsin Law Journal also interviewed State Bar of Wisconsin President Margaret Hickey.
“It’s hard to attract good young lawyers. Assistant prosecutors and public defenders are getting $27.24 an hour. They come out of law school and they have large loans,” said Hickey, noting that Wisconsin’s criminal justice system is “in a state of huge disrepair.”
As of January, Hickey said there were 48 assistant district attorney vacancies throughout the state.