‘This is unsustainable’: Wisconsin public defender caseloads in crisis

ROCK COUNTY, Wis. — Sixteen times, the regional public defender’s office in Rock County tried to appoint an attorney for a teenager accused of shooting and killing another teen over Labor Day weekend last year.

It’s become a regular storyline for cases–particularly felony cases–over the past year for public defenders across Wisconsin.

“The impact on the client is huge,” said Faun Moses, regional attorney manager for the public defender’s office in Janesville.

When Moses is at the Rock County courthouse, she said she’s regularly asking other attorneys she meets to take a couple cases off her office’s load. Support staffers for the office are spending their days emailing and calling private attorneys, seeking to offload cases from what’s becoming an unmanageable backlog and an increasingly stressful environment.

“We’re losing our attorneys, and then those cases have to be reassigned to someone else,” Moses said. “So they’re in the court system for even longer making sure someone else is getting up to speed on those cases.”

Across Wisconsin, the number of open cases sitting on the desks of public defenders has gone from 32,000 before the pandemic to 64,000 in May of this year, according to data provided by the state public defenders office.

“This is unsustainable and can potentially jeopardize the constitutional rights of our clients throughout the state,” SPD spokesperson Wilson Medina noted.

While caseloads have doubled amid a backlog partly attributed to the pandemic, the number of authorized attorneys handling the cases has remained essentially the same: the state legislature added just one authorized trial division attorney position in the 2021-2023 state budget, from 344 to 345 positions. Keeping those positions staffed has been another story.

“The turnover rate of attorneys also doubled over the course of the pandemic,” Medina said in an email. “It has always been a challenge to recruit and retain attorneys in more rural parts of Wisconsin, but even areas such as Milwaukee and Madison are experiencing those challenges now.  It is very much a statewide problem.”

During the pandemic, many counties put jury trials on hold out of public health and safety concerns. Public defenders, prosecutors, judges and criminal defense lawyers told News 3 Investigates at the time that they feared the coming backlog.

RELATED: Growing backlogs, fewer closed cases in Dane County as jury trials set to resume June 1

Today, that’s partly driving the public defender crisis. Moses said cases are also getting longer and more intense to take on: for example, the prevalence of video footage as evidence in today’s cases takes much longer for attorneys to analyze. There’s fewer attorneys — both public and private — certified to handle conflict and felony cases, so their strategy of sending cases off to private bar attorneys is frequently failing in that regard.

“They want to help us, they want to help out, they want to take our cases. But they are so overwhelmed,” Moses said.

In the meantime, some are sitting months in jail while their court cases stalls at the very beginning.

“Those individuals — they had a residence beforehand or a job beforehand. They could lose their residence, and they do lose their residence,” Moses said. “They lose their jobs. We have that happen countless times with our clients.”

Join Naomi Kowles on July 24, this Sunday morning on ‘For the Record’ at 10:30 for a more in-depth conversation on this topic