Over the past year, the Badger Institute has explored how Wisconsin’s justice system is facing massive criminal case backlogs that are fueling severe delays in justice for victims and defendants alike. It now takes much longer than a year to resolve cases involving grave violent crimes such as armed robbery, sexual assault and murder, and thousands of felony cases are taking two or more years to resolve.
We also discovered that there is a 10% turnover rate in District Attorney offices and an even higher 20% turnover in public defender roles each year. Every turnover in these necessary roles results in the need to file a continuance or schedule another hearing in every case — the biggest driver of how long it takes to resolve a criminal case.
Both concerning situations have been created by our failure to properly support the prosecutors and public defenders.
Public safety is a foundational requirement for prosperity in our communities. This means that fully funding the various systems that ensure public safety is a requirement, not a political preference. That’s why individuals from the most progressive to the most conservative agree these agencies should function effectively.
It’s exactly why a group that ordinarily criticizes runaway and unaccountable government spending has been calling for strategic and reasonable increases in spending on achieving justice, which involves both the prosecution and defense of the accused. We urged the state’s leaders to provide the necessary resources needed to slow this growing crisis of delayed justice.
We were recently encouraged to see the State Public Defender’s Office (SPD), Wisconsin District Attorney’s Association (WDAA), Association of State Prosecutors (ASP), Department of Justice (DOJ), and Director of State Court’s Office (DSCO) set aside their differing interests to join our call to the Legislature for increased financial support of prosecutors and public defenders.
Their most significant recommendation is to increase the salaries of attorneys choosing to become assistant district attorneys or assistant public defenders. These groups are requesting the starting salary for both roles be increased to just over $71,000 next year.
They are also calling for the Legislature to fully fund the state’s pay progression plan so that each assistant district attorney or assistant public defender can receive merit-based pay raises at the discretion of their district attorney or the State Public Defender.
These recommendations were not created out of thin air. They are directly supported by the findings of an independent salary survey completed by Wisconsin’s Division of Personnel Management and the Badger Institute’s own study comparing salaries in Wisconsin to those in other states and to other similar government attorney roles.
As we noted in our Mandate for Madison, in Wisconsin these roles not only have nearly the lowest starting salaries among comparable states but also the lowest average salary among comparable attorney positions in the state. For example, these same public servants can make 20% to 40% more by working in comparable jobs in a city or county attorney’s office.
This modest salary increase would make the state much more competitive when hiring. The additional appropriation — $39 million in total over the next two years — is a small price for swifter justice. It will still place Wisconsin’s spending for these core government functions below that of the closest comparable states on both a per-crime and per-capita basis — just not so far below.
But we would also urge our leaders to bundle the additional pay with other actions to improve the system’s performance and its utilization of existing resources.
The Mandate for Madison included six detailed recommendations to help our leaders better understand the causes of growing delays in the system and improve its efficiency. These include completing basic data collection on employee turnover, tracking how frequently courts are utilizing continuances, and changing state laws to ensure current caseload standards more closely reflect best practices.
It is encouraging to see all of these justice system stakeholders come together to highlight the problems we identified in our recent research and to propose common-sense solutions. We fully support their request to increase the salaries of hardworking prosecutors and public defenders in conjunction with basic data collection that will ensure the money is well spent in furtherance of swift and essential justice.
Jeremiah Mosteller is an attorney and criminal justice policy expert and a Visiting Fellow at the Badger Institute.