Long wait times and a backlog of cases have severely impacted those waiting to utilize Wisconsin public defenders for the past two decades.
“I was able to attend court intake in my hometown, and there were about six to eight people in the short time that I stayed that were unable to receive any kind of help with their own defense,” Carmen Ibarra, a senior English major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and prospective law student, said.
Ibarra’s observation is echoed throughout the state of Wisconsin, whose shortage of public defense lawyers has been termed a “constitutional crisis” by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. They, alongside other interested organizations, filed a class action lawsuit in 2022 against Governor Tony Evers, members of the Office of the State Public Defender and the Wisconsin Public Defender Board on behalf of indigent defendants in Wisconsin.
An indigent defendant is one whose income is too low to afford a lawyer. In such cases, the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides assistance of counsel. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ suit alleges previous Wisconsin Supreme Court cases hold that delaying the appointment of counsel for more than 14 days has been consistently found “unreasonable.”
With many law students choosing to go into private practice, rather than public service, backlogs for both public defenders and prosecutors have become increasingly severe in Wisconsin. According to PBS Wisconsin, since 2003, wait times before decisions in felony cases have increased 85%, and wait times for misdemeanor cases 110%.
The effects of these shortages can be dire. In Dodge County, outgoing district attorney Kurt Klomberg resigned after citing “untenable” conditions due to the loss of “all working prosecution staff before the end of January 2023” in a letter to Governor Evers. Evers later appointed Andrea Will, a Waukesha County attorney, to fill the position until January 2025, according to WPR.
Shortages in public defense attorneys are “devastating,” Ibarra said. “A lot of people really need help, especially those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford defense.”
Ibarra sees herself going into immigration law or public defense. Yet, Ibarra sees the high expense of law school as a drawback to a potential career in public defense, whose practitioners “don’t make that much money.”
“Public defenders do a lot of work for not a lot of praise or reward, which makes it difficult,” she said. “That’s unfortunate, and I think that’s why people don’t want to pursue it.”
The people aspect, however, can make the profession attractive.
“I think the main part about public defense that entices me is that I love to help people,” Ibarra said. “That’s really important, especially for those who are struggling in society.”
“It’s extremely difficult, and I think there is a lot of burnout because there is a shortage going on,” added Ibarra.
Salary also plays a role in one’s choice of field to enter, according to Emily Kite, associate dean of career and professional development at the UW Law School. Even students with a draw to public service may feel obligated to take a higher-paying job in private practice, she noted.
According to a 2020 report from the National Association of Law Placement, the median starting salary for a new lawyer in a government position was $64,000. In comparison, the median income for private practice ranges depending on the size of the firm — while lawyers in smaller firms had typical salaries of $60,000 to $85,000 dollars, the overall median starting salary was $130,000.
Yet, Kite also noted other factors, like the perception of high caseloads and geographic concerns, with much of the demand for public service lawyers being in rural areas that may not be ideal for students, according to Kite.
“I think many of our students come to law school recognizing the unique position that lawyers are in to be changemakers, whether that’s on an individual, client-by-client basis or more macro, policy-based impact,” said Kite.
Kite sees proposals to raise the base income of state public defenders as a potential way to raise graduate interest, but noted loan repayment and geographic incentives to leave well-served locations, like the Madison and Milwaukee metropolitan areas, for areas with greater need.
“A lot of the need is in rural Wisconsin,” Kite said.
Positions in public defense and prosecution, see skill-based benefits, particularly for graduates interested in careers in litigation, Kite explained. “These are among the best ways to get trial experience early in your legal career.”
Prepping UW Students
At UW Law, Kite sees a strong interest in “public service tradition” and hasn’t noticed a shift in student attitudes towards public service. A third of UW Law graduates, she said, go into government or public interest positions, a number higher than the 2021 national average, 18.1% between 3,699 government positions and 2,732 public interest positions, per the American Bar Association.
Real world skills are a key part of preparing students at UW Law for public service, Kite noted. The school offers clinics and externships from which students can earn credit doing work for real clients.
“This gives them the training to hit the ground running in those types of jobs and also reinforces the commitment of our students to serving vulnerable populations,” Kite said.
The school also offers prosecution and public defense “projects,” which have second-year law students spend their summer working in a Wisconsin public defender or prosecutor office, Kite explained.
“Many of the prosecutors and public defenders in the state are alumni of one of these two programs,” Kite said. “It’s a really great pipeline to the public defender’s office or the prosecution office because you’re actually working in those offices your second summer.”