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Racine County Courthouse

The Racine County Courthouse, 730 Wisconsin Ave.

RACINE COUNTY — Finding public defenders to represent indigent accused offenders has become incredibly difficult in Wisconsin. Many are blaming the shortage on low pay for government-employed attorneys, as compared to lawyers who work in private practice.

Public defenders are currently paid $40 an hour by the state. Court-appointed attorneys, also known as assigned counsel, are paid $70 an hour by the county in which they work, and that rate will be raised to $100 an hour starting in 2020.

The Racine County Board passed a resolution Tuesday, supporting efforts to close the gap, although no official changes have been made as of yet by state court officials, who have jurisdiction in the matter.

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The right to what kind of attorney?

Court-appointed attorneys are private lawyers who the state can call upon to defend accused lawbreakers who cannot afford legal representation. Public defenders defend the same people, some of whom are paid via salary and others who are private attorneys contracted by the state.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court mandates the pay for court-appointed attorneys and the legislature sets the wage for public defenders. And although it decided to raise the wage for court-appointed attorneys in June, it made no such change for Wisconsin’s public defenders who are paid by the hour. It became $40 an hour in 1995 and hasn’t changed since, the lowest wage in the nation currently.

This has led to some big problems, according to County Board Supervisor Janet Bernberg of Wind Point.

She said that there was one case in which more than 130 phone calls were made before finding a public defender, which Bernberg believes is the result of a shortage caused by low pay compared to lawyers who aren’t employed by the state.

“They are having difficulty finding people to be a defender,” Bernberg said.

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Counsel vs. defender

In 2012, the American Bar Association found that the better paid an attorney is, the better outcomes that will result for their clients. And so, if a region has better pay for public defenders, their clients will be convicted less and have shorter sentences than someone with a court-appointed attorney, and vice versa.

The study added that convicted defendants who relied on the justice system for counsel rarely claim they were misrepresented. And those who do make the claim are rarely successful in winning an appeal.

If you’re accused of committing a crime, you don’t get to pick which kind of lawyer they get. It’s out of the defendant’s hands as to what kind of lawyer will defend them.

Balancing the pay for public defenders and court-appointed attorneys, then, could help ensure more equal representation, according to Bernberg.

“And so, if only for equity,” Bernberg said, “we think that there should be a move to increase the public defenders’ pay.”

The County Board passed the resolution unanimously.

This article was corrected with updated information regarding which kinds of attorneys work as public defenders and what entities pay them.

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Adam Rogan (SCHS '14, Drake U. '17) has been covering homelessness, arts & culture and just about everything else for the JT since March 2018. He enjoys mid-afternoon naps, loud music played quietly and social media followers @Could_Be_Rogan

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