The State Bar of Wisconsin is calling the shortage of prosecutors and public defenders a “constitutional crisis” that could lead to the erosion of the right to a fair and speedy trial.
While the State Bar in a press release notes the issues “has been percolating for years,” it also notes Dodge County DA Kurt Klomberg’s resignation earlier this month underscores the problem.
“District Attorneys across the state have either staff shortages or positions they are unable to fill as salaries have not kept pace with the employment market,” the State Bar’s press release reads. “Starting pay for new assistant prosecutors ranks Wisconsin among the bottom 10 nationally.”
A WisPolitics.com review found 24 DAs have stepped down or departed before their terms expired since Gov. Tony Evers took office. Ten left to become county judges. Seven cited personal or family-related reasons in their resignations, while others left for other various reasons.
Klomberg’s last day in office was Jan. 13. He cited lack of pay for assistant district attorneys and high stress in his resignation letter.
In an interview with WisPolitics.com, he said at least some of the vacant Dodge County positions will be filled by retired prosecutors, but come the end of February, “there’ll be no prosecutors in the office.”
He insisted assistant district attorney pay needs to increase. It’s extremely difficult to convince someone fresh out of law school to take a job that will barely pay their college loans, he said.
He also hammered home the point that the issue is creating a constitutional crisis.
“This is my home,” he said of Dodge County. “And I’m very concerned for public safety. The police here do a great job – they can investigate crimes, arrest offenders – but without a prosecutor 48 hours later, that person is going to be released. Without a prosecutor, there will be no charges filed, and there will be no accountability. Without a prosecutor, the criminal justice system will fail.”
That’s not how he wanted to depart, he added.
“I had no intention of leaving this position,” he said. “I wanted to carry us into the next decade and turn this over to a successor who was made ready. And we cannot do that now. And I am deeply distressed by that.”
State Public Defender Kelli Thompson in the release said her office’s normal attorney staffing is down about 20 percent.
“When pay is insufficient, it is far more difficult to recruit and retain people to do the work,” she said. “The negative impact on both clients specifically and public safety generally is so significant.”
Joint Finance Committee Co-chair Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, when asked if JFC would propose any funding increases for DAs and their offices, said Republicans understand there are workforce issues in the criminal justice field.
“We will continue looking at options for increasing compensation to help our criminal justice system run more efficiently,” Born told WisPolitics.com.
Columbia County DA Brenda Yaskal told WisPolitics.com she’s concerned her county might be on the same track as Dodge. The most experienced prosecutor in her county graduated law school 18 months ago, she said. She said her prosecutors are dedicated and believe in what they do, but she’s worried they will soon leave the high stress to make more money elsewhere.
“I worry every day that they’re going to wake up and say, I don’t need this straw, you know, because our casebooks are out of control,” she said.
Yaskal’s predecessor Tristan Eagon stepped down in 2019 after she wrote in her resignation letter the county gave her an ultimatum “to either vacate the office or to continue to render this office completely inoperable.”
“I was met with officials at all levels of Columbia County government who appeared to be attempting to strong-arm my opinion and gave favor,” she wrote. “County officials implied that if I ever wanted to be elected I should put my own opinions aside and do as I was told.”
The Columbia County Sheriff’s office reported alcohol use, a violation of county ordinances, in Eagon’s office the day after she submitted her resignation letter.
Former Langlade County DA Elizabeth Gebert in her resignation letter cited changes in the county and her personal life. But she also in the letter urged Evers to fix the attorney shortage.
“As a prosecutor for the last thirteen years, and an elected District Attorney for six of those years, I urge you and the legislators to address the shortage of qualified DA’s and ADA’s in the upcoming State budget process,” Gebert wrote. “Part of my decision to resign is the inability to recruit ADA’s to practice in Northern Wisconsin, especially in rural counties.
Other DA resignations came as some moved to other jobs in the criminal justice profession such as former Jefferson County DA Susan Happ becoming head of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Litigation Unit.
Among the 24 departures is former Iowa County DA Larry Nelson, who died in 2019 before his term expired.
Former Eau Claire County DA Gary King resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment.