RACINE COUNTY — Several Racine County officials are heralding a criminal justice reform package that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, wants included in Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal.
Assembly Republicans unveiled their proposals Monday at six press conferences held throughout the state.
“People who commit a crime must serve their time, but we also want to make sure they don’t reoffend when they get out,” Vos said. “These reforms show that we can be tough but smart on crime.”
Vos said the reforms aim to improve the criminal justice system and also are meant to ensure quicker access to a fair trial and enhance the transition for ex-offenders re-entering society, a release issued by Vos’ office said.
The proposed reforms include funding for new assistant district attorney positions and increased pay for ADAs and state public defenders.
The plan would increase the private bar rate for county court and public defender appointments. The statewide public defender shortage is partly due to the state’s low reimbursement rate — $40 an hour, Sam Christensen, Racine County clerk of court said in December. The rate was last increased in 1995 and is the lowest in the nation.
Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave praised the Assembly GOP’s plan as a “great step forward” and said the package would provide much-needed additional resources while keeping communities safe.
“Smart criminal justice reform would ease the strain on local government and better position all facets of our justice system,” Delagrave said.
“I am appreciative and grateful that Speaker Vos and the assembly are moving forward on criminal justice reforms for Wisconsin,” Racine County District Attorney Tricia Hanson said. “These are resources that will allow us to retain highly qualified staff and provide smart, effective outcomes in cases, while guaranteeing constitutional protections for all.”
ADA, public defender pay
At a press conference Monday in Madison, State Public Defender Kelli Thompson praised the inclusion of the public defender items in the bill.
“The lowest hourly rate in the nation is resulting in more and more private attorneys refusing to take conflict-of-interest cases from our agency,” Thompson said.
Adrienne Moore, Racine regional attorney manager for the state Office of the Public Defender, said Public Defender appointment secretaries are contacting a greater number of private attorneys to find one willing to accept a case at the current rate.
If the Public Defender’s Office is unable to find an attorney for the case, the county court assigns the case. The county pays the private bar attorney $70 an hour, a rate set by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin.
“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,” Hanson said. “Turnover due to inadequate pay has been a problem for state-employed attorneys, ADAs and staff public defenders for many years.
“Critical to an effective criminal justice system for all is experienced attorneys on both sides to identify issues and see cases to their conclusion,” Hanson continued.
Other reforms requested
Other reform components include additional funding for Treatment Alternatives and Diversion programs for offenders suffering from alcohol and drug issues.
“These funds help form the basis for treatment courts in Racine County. These are specialized courts for veterans and drug addicted people, primarily opiate users, where we can provide the highest level of services and supervision to get people back on their feet in the community,” Hanson said. “Additional funding will allow us to expand this work or even consider the creation of other specialized courts where there is a need for services.”
The package also includes investment into the retention of correctional officers, and the expansion of worker training, re-entry programs and health initiatives.