JFC approves $38.4 million boost for prosecutors, public defenders

The Joint Finance Committee approved $38.4 million in general purpose revenue to boost pay for prosecutors and public defenders while adding 26.5 positions in district attorney offices across the state.

The bulk of that money — $25.7 million — would increase the rate paid to private attorneys who act as public defenders. Meanwhile, $3.6 million of it would go to helping counties cover the costs of attorneys appointed by circuit courts to represent the indigent.

The GOP motion was approved 12-4 along party lines.

The State Public Defenders Office has long sought an increase in the private bar rate of $40, which it pays to private attorneys to take the cases it can’t cover. The rate, now among the lowest in the country, would go to $70 starting Jan. 1, 2020.

That’s in line with what the guv proposed. But Evers also had called for indexing that rate for inflation going forward, and Republicans didn’t include that in their motion.

Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court has ordered counties to up their reimbursement rates to $100 an hour when the Public Defenders Office can’t find someone to take a case and circuit courts step in to appoint an attorney to take it on.

The GOP motion included money to help cover those costs, while the guv’s budget didn’t.

The GOP motion largely tracks the guv’s recommendation — with a technical modification — for the pay progression to provide a boost of 2 percent on Jan. 1, 2020, and Jan. 1, 2021.

It also largely matches Evers’ proposal to add 34 prosecutor positions at DA’s offices funded through general purpose revenue. That includes converting 3.5 positions now paid for with program revenue to GPR. The guv also wanted to convert four positions in the Milwaukee County DA’s office from program revenue to GPR. Instead, those positions would continue to be funded with grants, though that money has been declining.

Co-chair John Nygren, R-Marinette, noted Milwaukee County could return to the committee to seek additional money to cover the costs of the positions.

But Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said it was another example of “stick it to Milwaukee” because the GOP motion would still convert program revenue-supported prosecutor positions in Fond du Lac and Marathon counties to GPR.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, who co-authored the motion, said Dems and Republicans were largely in agreement except for a few small differences.

She also noted the private bar rate hadn’t changed since 1995, when it was reduced $10.
“At the end, we’re trying to make up for something that we haven’t been able to do for a long, long time,” she said.

The motion comes after public defenders, prosecutors, the Department of Justice and the court system joined forces to lobby the guv and lawmakers on a criminal justice system package. The motion approved today doesn’t include the DOJ component of that request, and the committee has not yet taken up the agency’s budget proposal.

State Public Defender Kelli Thompson applauded the package and noted that the current rate of $40 per hour for private attorneys “has had a crippling effect on our justice system.”

“I very much appreciate that the Committee members as well as the Governor and our partners in the criminal justice budget coalition support the effort to address this issue,” she said in a statement.