- A new report from the Sixth Amendment Center argues private lawyers don't get paid enough when doing public defense work in Wisconsin.
Ann Munninghoff, a former public defender supervisor who lives in Rhinelander, says fewer lawyers are even offering their service because many lose money doing the work.
The state is constitutionally required to provide defense for someone who can't afford it. Wisconsin pays the Wisconsin Public Defender's Office (SPD) to do that work, but they can't handle all of those cases. The group outsources overflow and conflict of interest cases, which are extremely common in small towns in the rural Northwoods.
Those private attorneys are paid $40 an hour, but Wisconsin State Public Defender Communications Director Randy Kraft says that doesn't really help much.
"That may sound like a lot, but that $40 generally doesn't cover the overhead expenses that attorney's face," Kraft said.
The overhead expenses include things like office rent, utilities, staff, accounting, research services, and business travel.
The compensation rate in Wisconsin is the lowest in the country. According to the report, it was lowered from $45 to $40 an hour in 1995. Inflation has increased by more than 100% since 1984, which means these attorneys have also faces increases costs.
The Sixth Amendment Center recommends the Wisconsin Supreme Court change its $70 compensation rate to $85 an hour. It also wants an overhead rate of $41.79, which would cover things like rent and utilities, plus a reasonable fee of $43.21.
Others have proposed a $80 compensation increase, but Munninghoff says that may not be enough.
"That would be far less than the norm, and so still it would be a hardship for local attorneys, but it would be a lot better than $40," Munninghoff said.
The state public defender's office handles 140,000 cases a year. Kraft says nearly 40 percent of those are done by private lawyers.
Munninghoff says many of the private lawyers doing public defending work are young and trying to get familiar with the court system. She says many experienced lawyers advocate for public defending work, trying to cut as many costs as possible to on their end so they can do more work.
But she says it's too much for them to handle a complex public defender case, or a lot of small one at the current compensation rate.
"The temptation to cut corners as much as possible of course is overwhelming because of that cost factor," Munninghoff said.
Kraft says an increase would certainly help the situation throughout Wisconsin. He says the SPD board has made it a priority to push for an increase to compensation rates.
"It would just increase the pool, and [it] might attract, again, even more experienced attorneys that may have, over the years, elected not to take our cases," Kraft said.
A link to the study is below.
Public Defender Wage Study