Low pay, worker shortages for state-funded attorneys addressed in Evers’ budget proposal 

Public defenders across Wisconsin are facing increased workloads due to worker shortages and lagging government wages, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.   

The turnover rate among public defenders who work as trial attorneys rose from 10–20% between 2018 and 2022, and total applications for attorney positions during the same period dropped from 355 to 168.  

Among the main consequences of the worker shortages are case backlogs and prolonged waits in jail for defendants. In 2013, the median felony case was resolved in 152 days, and the median misdemeanor case took 89 days. In 2021, those cases took 241 and 168 days to resolve, respectively.  

Rising wages within the private sector due to inflation have increased the disparity with public sector pay; the 2021 median pay for Wisconsin lawyers was $115,000 per year, while the median annual pay for assistant prosecutors and public defenders was just over $74,000. The state also falls behind in pay compared to the rest of the U.S. Wisconsin public defenders with 11–15 years’ experience make an average of $85,000 yearly as compared to a nationwide average of $101,000.  

Gov. Evers proposed an additional $67 million expenditure on state-funded attorneys’ offices in his budget, which would raise assistant district attorneys’ and assistant public defenders’ starting pay rate from $27.24 to $35 an hour. Since 2012, the starting pay for those positions has risen 15%, less than half of the increase in inflation over the same period. 

Evers also proposed giving private attorneys working as public defenders $100 an hour for case work and $50 an hour for travel time, raising current respective rates of $70 and $25 an hour. That would cost $10.8 million in each year of the budget.