Wage increases just part of the solution to public defender ‘crisis’

The Office of the State of Public Defender for the state of Wisconsin says the salary increase for public defenders will help address the shortage.
Published: Jun. 5, 2023 at 10:35 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The Office of the State of Public Defender for the state of Wisconsin says the salary increase for public defenders passed by the Joint Finance Committee in May will help address the shortage. But now, time and recruiting will play important roles in solving the issue.

“It is definitely a crisis,” said the office’s legislative liaison Adam Plotkin. “Staff attorneys collectively state-wide would have somewhere between 30,000 and 32,000 open cases at any one time. At the height of the pandemic, that total number had reached almost 62,000 cases.”

Plotkin says the plan to raise the salary from around $53,000 to $75,000 is just part of the solution to an issue plaguing public defenders for a decade. Something only exacerbated by the pandemic and now leaving them with a significant backlog.

“What we needed was a significant investment, and we saw it state-wide. Our offices were tremendously impacted by turnover and the inability to recruit,” said Plotkin. “I’m hoping it’s closer to the four to five-year mark, if not shorter right now {to fix the problem}. We have a 20% vacancy rate among our staff attorney positions; if we’re able to fill even half of that is going to have a significant impact.”

Plotkin says the stigma of overworked and underpaid public defenders needs to be shaken off as the office recruits attorneys in law school accruing debt. He adds many have a passion for the work before leaving law school, and part of the recruiting process is finding and cultivating that passion.

“I’m working for clients and working to ensure everyone has equal justice under the law here in the state,” said UW law student Kyle Minden, who works in the office. “When I’m done with school, I’d love to work for the public defender’s office and begin that opportunity. I think that the work is really important and is something that I’m passionate about doing.”

If Plotkin can offer better wages, he hopes recruiting will also improve, alleviating the workload and taking away the overworked reputation of a public defender, making the job more appealing to new attorneys.

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