Darrell Brooks Jr.’s trial on six counts of homicide is careening along 10 full months after he was arrested in the Waukesha parade outrage. By the standards of Wisconsin justice, that’s prompt.
It should be another kind of outrage that it now takes, on average, more than 15 months to fully resolve, from arrest to closed case, a homicide charge in Wisconsin. Armed robbery takes a year and sexual assault cases average 14 months. Scholar Jeremiah Mosteller documents these dismal averages in “Toward Swifter Justice,” a study examining the scope and causes of Wisconsin’s court backlogs. It’s part of the Badger Institute’s Mandate for Madison.
Mosteller documents how our courts are getting slower. A felony that took an average of 130 days from charges to sentence in 2003 now takes 241 days, with a sharp turn for the worse after 2018.
And Mosteller documented the reasons. Short version: Prosecutors are overloaded. They’re having a hard time holding on to staff.
“We consistently lose attorneys,” said Kent Lovern, Milwaukee County’s chief deputy district attorney. “The attorneys we lose are those who have been here three, five or seven years, and they are now able to handle complicated felony cases.” Or they would if they didn’t leave for better jobs.
“If we don’t put bodies in the courtroom, that is going to slow down cases,” said Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg. “It is that simple.”
An answer suggests itself: Put bodies with law degrees into courtrooms so that prosecution may proceed promptly, then pay enough so they stay there after they gain mastery. Mosteller suggests just that. Though, as he put it to WIBA-AM commentator Vicki McKenna, “Money’s going to help, but it’s not going to solve the problem.” Policymakers must find ways of making courts work more efficiently.
But saying that part about more money can set off alarms about throwing cash at dysfunctional operations. Rightly so. More money for John Chisholm? For the Milwaukee County district attorney whose office botched Brooks’ release on bail before the parade outrage and who refused to prosecute what the head of the Milwaukee Police Association last year called a “ridiculously high” share of felony cases?
Yes, more money for that one. And for other DAs in the state. The performance of any particular DA is not an indictment of the ideal of adequate prosecution. So long as Wisconsin elects its DAs, that performance says more about voters’ options and decisions — a separate discussion. The delays Mosteller describes are across jurisdictions, meaning that victims of crimes are delayed in seeing justice and citizens are not seeing as much deterrence as they should, regardless of whom they elected.
And sometimes, yes, the answer is to throw more cash, especially at legitimate functions of government. Think Reagan and the defense budget. Prosecutors provide the domestic equivalent of what the Navy does when it deters foreign threats to our civil order. Funding prosecutors’ work — and that of public defenders, without whom prosecutions cannot proceed — is as legit as local government gets. Arresting criminals means nothing if we can’t prosecute and incarcerate them.
Say what you will about how assistant district attorneys should step up their game, or question as you might the work ethic of prosecutorial staffs. I don’t, and Mosteller’s findings give no support to such complaint, but supposing for a moment that courthouse staffs are just undermotivated and subpar, what is the usual way of improving a workforce in our free-market economy?
We don’t do military-style drafts for talent. Beatings rarely improve morale. Instead, if you feel you need a better staff, you attract one. You pay more, and you fund an adequate number of colleagues to prevent burnout. Welcome to capitalism.
There’s evidence that prosecutorial and public defense staffs are talented and motivated, seeing as they’re lured away by better opportunities.
Just listen to the current head of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association, who concisely made the case for better staff pay on a recent late-afternoon show on Milwaukee’s conservative talk-radio powerhouse, WISN-AM:
“We’ve got so many great prosecutors across Wisconsin that are working tirelessly to keep our communities safe,” said that DA, Fond du Lac County’s Eric Toney. “And many of them do it for very low pay, with a starting salary at $54,000.”
Toney is running for Wisconsin attorney general against the incumbent Josh Kaul, who has called for more “community prosecutors” and two new prosecutors in his own office. While the Badger Institute stays out of politicking, Toney’s comments are notable because he’s taking a traditional tough-on-crime approach and clearly sees better prosecutor funding as part of it.
Talking to host Kevin Nicholson, he put the proposition this way: “It becomes a difficult decision for someone to make coming out of law school to say, ‘I want to make $54,000,’ even though they may have a passion to be a prosecutor.”
Thus, he and his association are pushing for adequate state support of that part of law-and-order that comes right after the arrest.
The Badger Institute is pleased to explain to Wisconsin what those DAs are referring to.
Patrick McIlheran is the Director of Policy at the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited