Opening the case on Wisconsin’s public defender problem

The Joint Finance Committee unanimously approved bumping the salary for public defenders to address shortages
Published: May. 30, 2023 at 10:33 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The Joint Finance Committee unanimously approved a plan to bump the salary for public defenders to address shortages, a move some attorneys believe could be falling short of addressing the problem.

“This has been an issue for over a decade,” said associate clinical professor for the University of Wisconsin-Madison law school John Gross. “To some degree, the legislature has been indifferent to this problem.”

On May 16th, the vote approved a plan to increase salaries for public defenders from around $57,000 to $75,000. The move is a way lawmakers are working to address a shortage of public defenders, which in turn is exacerbating the backlog of cases bogging down courts since the pandemic.

“We really wanted to make sure that we address the challenges that we’ve seen in staffing in both the public defenders and the district attorney office,” said committee co-chair, State Assembly Representative Mark Born.

Born says a well-functioning criminal justice system gives people a fair day in court, something many have had to wait on for a growing number of days. According to the Wisconsin court website, the median age for a felony case was 183 days in 2019, jumping to 241 in 2021. Gross says there are simply not enough public defenders for the number of people needing representation, and the statewide public defender’s office is understaffed by roughly 20%. He adds this is a symptom of a more significant issue: A lack of lawyers entering the workforce.

“We need more people who are willing to be dedicated public defenders. We need more private attorneys willing to participate in our Public Defense systems and take criminal cases,” said Gross.

With a limited number of new lawyers, the private sector jobs are typically more appealing landing spots for the limited resource that is more attorneys, especially when considering they graduate with around $120,000 in student loans.

“We don’t want to spend money on defending people who are accused of crimes, or we want to spend as little money on this as we possibly can. Well, this creates a system that is very inefficient,” said Gross.

Gross says increasing pay is one way to try and combat the issue, but the gap between public defender and private sector jobs is still considerable and suggests other benefits like some type of debt forgiveness.

The professor also says studies show paying public defenders more can actually save taxpayers. According to a study on SSRN, researchers in Michigan found compensating the overworked offices and getting more staffing to public defenders went a long way in saving on court fees and costs and incarceration expenses. The math came out to roughly $6.31 saved for every dollar spent on a public defender.

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