The state’s top public defender hopes legislation will address a disparity in funding for merit-based pay between prosecutors and public defenders.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers are sponsoring a bill that would increase merit-based pay for public defenders by roughly $4 million over the next two years.
The two-year budget approved in July by lawmakers and Gov. Tony Evers included around $4.5 million to fund merit-based pay increases for assistant prosecutors. About $1.2 million will go to pay progression for assistant public defenders.
State Public Defender Kelli Thompson fears the lack of equity and recent addition of prosecutor positions statewide may lead staff to seek jobs elsewhere.
"If they’re able to work in the criminal justice system and make more money, it will be hard for me to keep them," said Thompson.
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, and Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, are lead authors of a bill that would provide around $4 million more for public defender pay over the next two years. Loudenbeck said the budget made significant investments in the criminal justice system, including additional positions for prosecutors and raising the private bar rate from $40 to $70 an hour.
"We can’t always fund every priority that we have," she said. "We made a substantial investment in all three legs of the criminal justice stool, but leaving this one out really deserves a second look."
Some argued more funding for prosecutors makes sense since district attorneys have higher caseloads, said Louis Molepske, Jr., president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys' Association. However, he said their association supports legislation to fund a public defender pay plan.
"We do not want backlogs of cases," he said. "If the Office of the Public Defender is having problems filling positions or maintaining the people they have because the pay is lousy, now all that does is delay justice for victims and it delays our caseload here."