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Wisconsin's budget committee approves higher pay for prosecutors, defense attorneys

Maayan Silver
Lawmakers unanimously voted to include in the state budget a boost in pay for prosecutors, public defenders, and others defending the indigent.

“Tuesday was a good day for the state of Wisconsin” according to both Republicans and Democrats on Wisconsin's legislature’s powerful joint finance committee.

Lawmakers unanimously voted to include in the state budget a boost in pay for prosecutors, public defenders, and others defending the indigent.

Public defenders and district attorneys — like Democrats and Republicans — are often on opposing sides of an issue. But they’ve gotten on the same page because of issues like low pay, staffing shortages and overwhelming caseloads for public defenders and prosecutors.

These issues have led to something that’s arguably a constitutional crisis: the inability of some indigent defendants to have lawyers appointed to them in a timely fashion.

“We are proposing today, and we'll be voting in the committee on an $8.76 cent pay bump for ADAs and Deputy District Attorneys and Assistant State Public Defenders," Rep. Mark Born says. "Their starting wage will increase to $36 per hour. This is $1 an hour more than what the Governor proposed.”

Mark Born, a Republican from Beaver Dam, is a co-chair of the Joint Committee on Finance. He spoke as the panel adopted the hike Tuesday.

$36 per hour would be about $75,000 dollars per year for starting attorneys.

“Our plan also goes further behind the Governor by ensuring that more experienced attorneys aren't held back from these wages. The Governor's had a maximum cap that was not removed,” Born says.

The other Joint Finance Committee co-chair, GOP Senator Howard Marklein of Spring Green added: “we're also raising the private bar rate to $100 per hour, which will certainly help our public defenders. Additionally, we're going to be funding site cybersecurity improvements for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.”

Private bar rate is the hourly pay rate for private attorneys taking public defender appointments. In 2019, lawmakers finally boosted the hourly rate from $40/hr to $70/hr. The pay had sat at $40/hr since 1995 and was the lowest in the nation.

The current GOP proposal would raise it to $100/hr to match the rate attorneys can get when a case is appointed by the courts.

Fond du Lac District Attorney Eric Toney, who heads the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association, and Kelli Thompson, the State Public Defender, were on hand to show their support. “With these resources, we expect to retain some of the most experienced hardworking attorneys in the state, and to recruit for the dozens and dozens of vacant positions both within the public defender's office and the District Attorney's Offices,” Thompson says.

Thompson says the money is a direct investment in individual liberties, due process and public safety.

Democrats, who are in the minority on the budget-crafting committee, came up with their own proposals, asking for more money. When Republicans rejected those — Democrats like Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee — joined in with the GOP plan.

“There are some differences between the motion that the Democrats made and the motion in front of us I would, as I mentioned in my commentary love to see additional support staff. I do have concerns about what will happen to federal or program revenue funded prosecutor positions, especially in my home community,” Goyke says.

Goyke is concerned about having enough funding for community prosecutors and special drug task force prosecutors. “But as I look over this motion, and I have to make a choice, whether I'll be in support or against — this is an important step for the justice system,” Goyke says.

The GOP proposals passed the joint finance committee unanimously and are part of the budget process.

When the Legislature completes its budget later this year, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers will be able to amend it with partial vetoes. Evers has been pushing pay increases for criminal justice jobs. He said earlier this year that he would consider vetoing the entire budget if Republicans didn’t include enough funding for these positions.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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