Wisconsin’s labor crisis among prosecutors is about to come to a head in Dodge County
Know what puts a crimp in any effort to fight crime? Not being able to do anything with suspects once the cops catch them.
In Dodge County, District Attorney Kurt Klomberg is quitting — and is pretty close to being the last guy out the door. As first reported in the online news outlet Wisconsin Right Now, the county is about to be left with no prosecutors. None.
In the past six months, half of Klomberg’s assistant prosecutors announced they’re retiring. Another took family leave through February. The remaining assistant district attorney took a prosecutor job in another county with a shorter commute, and Dodge County can’t get any prosecutors to take a job offer. It cannot even get applicants.
“Our office collapsed, because we cannot recruit people,” said Klomberg. “And I’m afraid we won’t be the last ones.”
It’s what led Klomberg to quit. His office files about 1,200 cases a year, with 70 set for trial by the end of February. Before resigning, he said he begged the Evers administration for help from retired prosecutors and says he got turned down. “I didn’t want to leave at that point,” he said. “Still don’t want to leave.” He says he’d have stuck it out if he had even one assistant left. But he has a family he’d never see, and it would be malpractice to the county to try handling the load alone. He felt he had to force the state’s hand.
So he found another job.
That’s how it works in a free-market economy: You can’t force people to work for you. You have to attract them, or they’ll go find a better job. Wisconsin’s been doing a poor job with that equation when it comes to prosecutors, one reason the issue is popping up here, part of a series on Badger Institute policy priorities for Wisconsin policymakers.
“I have been a prosecutor for over 20 years,” said Klomberg to WRN, “and I have never seen the system at this level of crisis.”
A lot of it is the pay, as scholar Jeremiah Mosteller pointed out in the Badger Institute’s “Mandate for Madison” last fall. Wisconsin starts prosecutors statewide at about $56,000, eventually progressing up to an average of $79,800. Think that’s a lot? Klomberg notes that his county’s child-support lawyers down the hall start their careers at $81,000. They deserve it, he says, but when a young prosecutor faces law-school debt, starts a family and gets a mortgage, that extra $25,000 looks compelling. He reckons that boosting starting pay to $70,000 “is probably enough get people to walk through the door.”
Klomberg, former president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association, said it’s not just the pay, though: “This is very acrimonious work, very ugly work,” dealing with the worst moments of people’s lives, he said. And “there are major social issues going on that are decreasing the attractiveness of being a prosecutor.”
These shortages don’t affect only prosecutors. Public defenders in Wisconsin are paid on the same scale, and their employers are subject to the same turnover and hiring woes, Mosteller reported. Both sides must be staffed for cases to proceed, and vacancies are to blame for Wisconsin’s growing backlog in prosecutions. It now takes more than a year on average for a court to resolve an armed robbery charge, or 14 months for a victim of sexual assault to see justice done.
“If we don’t put bodies in the courtroom, that is going to slow down cases,” Klomberg told Mosteller.
Public safety staffing woes are not confined to courtrooms. In our “Mandate for Madison,” researcher Sean Kennedy outlined the police attrition crisis afflicting Wisconsin’s largest city. Not only have Milwaukee’s political leaders steadily cut back the number of officer positions the Milwaukee Police Department is authorized to fill, the city has failed to find enough recruits for those positions. The result is an officer vacancy rate of more than 11% in 2022. Milwaukee police officers are leaving faster than they can be replaced, so much so that MPD’s ranks have been depleted by about 25% over the past 25 years.
Meanwhile, though much of Wisconsin is relatively safe when compared to five years ago for most crimes, Milwaukee has been suffering a spike in crime from 2019 through 2021, with homicides doubled and auto thefts up 255%, Kennedy found. The city’s figures for homicides and gunfire incidents, available on a monthly basis, turned sharply upward around May 2020, just as public opprobrium directed at cops exploded. Even so, arrests have fallen dramatically in the city across almost all offense categories.
Not that other parts of Wisconsin should be complacent. Milwaukee, with 10% of Wisconsin’s population, suffers more than half its homicides, but murder and other crimes are ticking up elsewhere, too. Car thefts are up, sharply in some Wisconsin cities, as are simple assaults.
All of this suggests it’s a bad time for Milwaukee to suffer a staffing crisis on its police force and for all of Wisconsin to realize there’s no one available to try cases because the state skimps on prosecutors’ pay (and Mosteller showed that, compared to other states, we do).
Or, conversely, it’s a golden moment for the reality-based part of Wisconsin — those who believe in free markets — to point out that if you can’t get people to do a job and you need it done, that’s nature’s way to telling you to pay more, in money, in respect, or both.
Klomberg says that since he resigned, the state has scraped up some retired prosecutors as temporary help, and a neighboring county is lending someone. “While this is all good for the county,” he told me, “in the end we still have zero applicants for the assistant district attorney positions. The covering attorneys are not a sustainable solution to the office staffing shortage. Without a competitive starting wage for ADAs, this problem will continue.”
On the subject of reality, the “Mandate for Madison” offers many other ideas, too many to mention them all. Any policymaker can benefit from reading it, but to highlight just two:
Poverty persists in Wisconsin, but not for lack of spending. Counting just major safety-net programs, Wisconsinites got $9.1 billion in 2019 from the federal government and another $3.6 billion from state taxpayers. As Badger Institute visiting fellow Angela Rachidi points out, per-person spending for poverty relief has been rising vigorously and continually for years, yet those at the bottom of the income distribution are no more likely to climb the ladder than past generations.
She lays out an alternative: Work with Congress to win flexibility to consolidate and restructure existing programs — allowing the state to add time limits and work requirements that incentivize employment, to end “benefits cliffs” that discourage earning more, and to alter requirements for married couples, so as to stop discouraging marriage. Research makes clear that employment and marriage are the key to helping families achieve independence, and Wisconsin should use the billions it spends to lead people to those institutions.
Healthcare is costly because providers don’t face the discipline that markets impose to improve quality at affordable prices, write researchers Daniel Sem and Scott Niederjohn. But there are reforms Wisconsin can use to change that.
One is to permit the emergence of the “direct primary care” model, already catching on in other states, under which doctors provide better routine care at fixed and reasonable prices without insurance. The model aligns patients’ and providers’ interests in a way our current system doesn’t, but for it to thrive, Wisconsin law should make it clear that such arrangements are not to be regulated as if they were insurance.
Wisconsin should consider other steps to harness markets’ pro-consumer power, such as permitting (but not price-controlling) telehealth appointments, and codifying price transparency reforms that a dozen other states have adopted to let patients shop for providers that serve them best.
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.