Public defenders talk about struggle to find, keep candidates.

 
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Byline: Michaela Paukner, mpaukner@wislawjournal.com

The Wisconsin Public Defenders Office revealed at a hearing on Thursday that it's struggling to find candidates for public defender positions.

Lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Finance heard from supporters of two bills that would restore equal pay for state public defenders. The state's latest budget saw state prosecutors receive a pay-progression plan but not public defenders. These latest bills seek to rectify the situation by having nearly $4 million set aside through 2021 to fund pay progression for assistant state public defenders.

Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, and Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon, are the bill authors. They said the legislation are crtical to ensuring justice and guaranteeing constitutional rights in Wisconsin's court system. Petrowski said there is a shortage of lawyers in Marathon County and said trial delays are common.

Kelli Thompson, Wisconsin state public defender, gave the committee a picture of how the lack of equal pay is already affecting her office. She said four candidates were recently scheduled for interviews at the Wausau office, and all four cancelled beforehand. Thompson said two cited pay limitations and said they were pursuing positions in the district attorney's office. She said her office has not been able to schedule any interviews for state public defender positions in the past 60 days.

Thompson said the state prosecutor's office is also recruiting many public defenders. If a state public defender considers a job that is a position of conflict, he or she is required to leave as soon as substantial conversations regarding the position occur. Thompson said this occurred twice in the last week, leaving nearly 250 cases without representation.

Richard Jones, an assistant state...

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