Wisconsin boosts pay for public defenders, hopes to stem high rate of turnover

March 17, 2021

A new law in Wisconsin will allow for a boost in pay for the state’s public defenders, after a year of high turnover and concerns about its impactFunding of public defender systems on indigent defendants, crime victims and local court systems. Between March 2020 and the beginning of this year, 78 people had left Wisconsin’s Office of the State Public Defender — the state-funded entity that ensures the right to counsel. Among the factors causing this spike in turnover: in-person visits to jail and court proceedings during a pandemic, higher workloads, and career opportunities in the private sector and other government offices.

Under SB 62, signed into law in March, merit pay for a public defender can exceed 10 percent of his or her base bay for the remainder of this fiscal year. Legislators say the new law also will reinstate the state’s longstanding practice of linking the pay progression of public defenders to that of assistant district attorneys.

According to the Sixth Amendment Center, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota contribute all or nearly all of the funding for right-to-counsel services in their states (revenue sources such as court fees and fines are sometimes used as well). In contrast, other states in the Midwest leave the costs to local governments or use a mixed funding model (see map). In its review of legislative actions in 2020, the Sixth Amendment Center singled out two states in the Midwest: Michigan for appropriating $117.5 million in grants for local governments to meet state standards on indigent defense, and Ohio for more than doubling its level of support for public defenders.