RACINE COUNTY — Racine County Circuit Court is seeing an alarming increase in the number of court attorney appointments.
Since the year began, Samuel Christensen, the clerk of Racine County Circuit Courts, said the county has appointed 37 attorneys to felony cases as of Thursday. Last year at this time, they had only appointed five. During 2018, they appointed a total of 137 attorneys to felony cases.
Those numbers only include appointments for felony cases, and don’t include misdemeanor, traffic and juvenile case appointments.
“The sheer volume of appointments we are seeing weekly is getting a bit out of control,” Christensen said.
Racine County’s Public Defender’s Office typically represents those who cannot afford to hire an attorney, but sometimes a case must be referred to an outside attorney due to staff shortages and conflicts of interest.
In those cases, the Public Defender’s Office seeks out a private attorney to take on the case. Unfortunately, attorneys from Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee counties willing to accept these cases are becoming more difficult to find.
Christensen said the problem is from both a shortage of criminal attorneys in the area and low reimbursement rate for private bar attorneys accepting public defender cases at the current rate of $40 an hour. The rate was set in 1995 and is the lowest in the nation.
If the Public Defender’s Office cannot find an attorney to take the case, the county court is asked to assign the case.
Instead of the $40 rate, the county pays $70 an hour, a rate set by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. While defendants are required to make a payment for these services, it is often not as much as the actual cost to the county.
Vos: Reforms are needed
The solution, Christensen said, might be found in this week’s proposal by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who called for a criminal justice reform package to be included in Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal.
The proposed reforms include funding for new assistant district attorney positions, increased pay for ADAs and state public defenders and an increased private bar rate for county court and public defender appointments.
Racine County District Attorney Tricia Hanson and the State Public Defender’s Office showed support for the measure.
“Raises for prosecutors, public defenders and private bar attorneys are long overdue,” Hanson said. “Turnover due to inadequate pay has been a problem for state-employed attorneys, ADAs and staff public defenders for many years.”
At a press conference Monday in Madison, State Public Defender Kelli Thompson praised the inclusion of the public defender items in the bill.
“The two public defender items included — raising the private bar rate, and pay progression for our staff attorneys — are of extreme importance to our justice system,” Thompson said. “Increasing the private bar rate, providing pay progression and making all of these other important investments a stated priority will enable all of us in the criminal justice system to work together to protect Wisconsin’s communities and guarantee the constitutional rights of individuals.”
“Raises for prosecutors, public defenders and private bar attorneys are long overdue. Turnover due to inadequate pay has been a problem for state-employed attorneys, ADAs and staff public defenders for many years.” <&textAlign: right>Tricia Hanson, Racine County District Attorney