Lawmakers trying to less discrepancy between pay for prosecutors, public defenders.

 
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Byline: Michaela Paukner, mpaukner@wislawjournal.com

A discrepancy in pay for prosecutors and public defenders is threatening to tip the scales of justice in Wisconsin.

Even though representatives of both public prosecutors and public defenders have been seeking merit-based pay progression, the state's current budget provides it only to prosecutors. Now new bipartisan legislation is meant to rectify the situation before the public defender's office suffers losses.pay

Plan for parity

The bill asks for nearly $4 million through 2021 to fund a pay-progression plan for assistant state public defenders. The State of Wisconsin Compensation Plan now sets the starting hourly wage for public defenders at $25.14, beginning in January 2019. The new bill would provide an opportunity to receive merit-based pay in addition to this hourly rate.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, is one of the bill authors and a member of the state's Joint Committee on Finance, which had a large role in shaping the 2019-21 budget. She said the pay-progression plan for state public defenders was one of many proposals that didn't receive funding the first time around.

"We can't have inequities in a system that is supposed to be fully balanced in order to function at its best," said Loudenbeck. "We want the skilled and experienced talent to stay with the public defenders if that's where they want to be."

The bill has received support from 44 legislators in both the Assembly and Senate.

"Everybody in our country has the constitutional right to representation," said Sen. Tim Carpenter, a Democrat from Milwaukee and another author of the bill. "If we are going to fulfill that constitutional right, we have to attract individuals that can live on a decent salary.

It's not fair to require people to live in poverty or near poverty in order to do public service."

Kelli Thompson, state public defender, said restoring parity is essential. She said the department is already seeing increasing turnover.

"The prosecutors have received 55 new positions, and those positions need to be filled," said Thompson. "Our concern, and what we're already seeing, is our staff looking at those positions because they will be able to be paid significantly more. We've been notified of four separate attorneys in the last 24 hours that are considering moving to their local prosecutor's offices that will have these openings."

Pay progression's importance

Thompson said public defenders, before the state's latest...

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