“You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”
That’s from the Miranda warning, the words that law-enforcement officers are required to read or recite to suspects when arresting them.
It is the law that an attorney will be provided. But it’s hard to follow that law when there is a shortage of public defenders and private attorneys willing to take on these cases. It’s causing backups in the Racine County Circuit Court system and statewide.
This was an issue Journal Times reporter Alyssa Mauk outlined in December in an article headlined “Attorney shortage causing court delays in county, state.”
Racine County is not the only county in Wisconsin affected. In fact, six people facing charges in rural Ashland and Bayfield counties have filed a class-action lawsuit over long delays in appointing lawyers there.
The delays don’t just infringe on the rights of the accused, they also make the courts run less efficiently. Defendants who, with an attorney, might win reduced bail instead sit in jail, sometimes losing employment, adding to their and their employers’ problems, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported as part of the story on the northern Wisconsin lawsuit.
To address this issue, state Republicans have proposed a criminal-justice reform package that they would like to see included in Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal, which is set to be presented Thursday.
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.
The package also includes investment into the retention of correctional officers, and the expansion of worker training, re-entry programs and health initiatives.
The proposal is much-needed, especially the section on increasing private-bar rate for county court and public defender appointments.
Evers has yet to weigh in on the proposal. But this should have bipartisan support.
The law requires that people who are arrested have a lawyer, someone there to give them guidance on the law and help them get a reasonable bail.
In a Journal Times report over the weekend, 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, it had only appointed five. Those numbers only include appointments for felony cases and don’t include misdemeanor, traffic and juvenile case appointments.
Racine County District Attorney Tricia Hanson and the Office of the State Public Defender 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.”
State Public Defender Kelli Thompson also praised the inclusion of the public defender items in the bill.
“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,” Thompson said.
The goal of the criminal justice system is to keep the community safe while preserving individual rights. But that cannot be done unless proper resources are given.