A proposal in the Wisconsin Legislature to increase pay for public defenders and assistant district attorneys strikes us as a necessary step to safeguard both public safety and the rights of those accused of crimes.
The plan, which was advanced by the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, increases starting pay for the roles to $36 an hour. That’s a little less than a $9/hour raise, bumping the pay from around $57,000 annually to $75,000 per year.
That’s a big jump. It’s fair for people to ask why such an increase is necessary when so many people see miniscule raises in their jobs. But it’s also fair to point out what’s at stake.
Prosecution in the American court system is always a publicly-funded role. That’s because it’s the state or the federal government that brings the charges. Using private attorneys to do so simply wouldn’t make sense.
The Constitution also guarantees defendants competent legal representation. No one is required to have an attorney when charged — and some people do choose to defend themselves — but anyone who wants representation must have it. Fulfilling that guarantee requires public defenders.
The workload for each role is substantial. Bringing or defending a charge competently requires familiarity with the evidence, numerous interviews and depositions with those involved, discussions with experts and potential witnesses. It requires long hours of research to determine which laws apply and develop familiarity with precedent cases that could come into play.
In other words, the work attorneys put in for criminal cases is considerably more intensive than what any courtroom drama shows. The result is constant strain from court deadlines, mounting caseloads and the time it can take away from caring for oneself and one’s family.
Unlike many other stressful jobs, those who work on behalf of the public in criminal law have an obvious and lucrative exit. Private practice is often substantially more profitable, and you get to choose which cases you want to pursue.
When the exit sign is that brightly lit, retention is a challenge. In January, the State Bar of Wisconsin called understaffing a “crisis situation.” Raising pay won’t instantly fix staffing issues, but it could well prevent them from getting worse.
What happens when things get worse? We saw a preview of that during the COVID-19 pandemic, when states shut down their courtrooms. Cases couldn’t be tried, leaving some of those charged in jail for much longer than normal. One group of defendants sued, saying they went weeks without even having public defenders assigned to their cases.
Wisconsin still has a 35,000-case backlog, according to an Associated Press article on the Legislature’s proposal. And, while speedy trials are a Constitutional right, there isn’t a good timeline to resolve this load.
More than just defendants are harmed when that kind of situation emerges. Victims and their families are left waiting for justice, too. The inability to conclude the trial looms over everyone, making it difficult to fully move on with life.
Having a functioning and well-staffed system for public defenders and prosecutors isn’t optional. It shouldn’t seem optional. It’s a requirement, both morally and constitutionally.
The proposal currently making its way through the Legislature seems to have bipartisan support. That’s good. Both sides should recognize the need. And, in this case, they seem to be acting on it as well.
Whether you realize it or not, this is something everyone in the state needs. Anyone can become a victim of crime. There may not be any quick fixes to the challenges Wisconsin’s legal system faces, but the proposed increases seem like a step in the right direction as the state wrestles with solutions.
— From the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram