State Assembly Republicans seek $50 million to be earmarked in the next state budget for a package of criminal justice initiatives they say will improve the system from start to finish.
“These initiatives show we can be both smart and tough on crime,” state Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, said Monday at a news conference at the Eau Claire County Courthouse.
Assembly Republicans requested the following initiatives at news conferences around the state:
• Fund new assistant district attorney positions.
• Increase pay for assistant district attorneys and state public defenders.
• Increase the private attorney rate for county and public defender appointments.
• Expand treatment alternatives and diversion programs to help offenders who suffer from alcohol and drug issues.
• Invest in the retention of correctional officers.
• Promote the successful transition back into society through expanded worker training, re-entry programs and health initiatives.
“Our ultimate goal is to make our communities a safer place to live and work,” James said. “The reforms we’re calling for today make targeted investments to ensure that all citizens impacted by the criminal justice system are given access to a quicker, fair trial.”
Attendees at the Eau Claire news conference included Eau Claire County District Attorney Gary King, a Democrat; Laurie Osberg of Eau Claire, the regional attorney manager with the state public defender’s office; and Eau Claire County Sheriff Ron Cramer, a Republican.
The GOP proposal would add 69 assistant district attorney positions statewide.
King said since he first became district attorney in 2013, his office has always been understaffed with assistant prosecutors.
King has eight full-time assistant prosecutors in his office. A state study in 2018 indicated Eau Claire County could use seven additional prosecutors based on caseload, King said.
“Every state budget I ask for two new positions,” he said. “And in the last 10 years, we’ve doubled our felony cases. That’s concerning.”
Because there aren’t enough public defenders to handle the criminal cases for those eligible for public defender services, private attorneys are asked to represent those clients.
The GOP proposal seeks to pay private attorneys $70 an hour to accept public defender cases.
The current state rate is $40 an hour, which is the lowest rate in the nation, Osberg said.
“It’s taken many phone calls to try to get attorneys to get people represented,” she said. “We have been struggling to find counsel for our qualified applicants.”
Cramer said it sometimes takes one to two years for criminal cases to be completed.
“That’s too long,” he said. “The whole system now needs a shot in the arm.”
State Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said she found it interesting that Republicans would unveil these initiatives in a series of news conferences around the state.
“I think it’s ironic once again they’re taking our Democratic values,” she said. “They are finally catching on to what the state wants.”
Republicans are just not going about it the right way, Emerson said.
“This is just another way to circumvent a Democratic governor and do things their own way. Now they’re jumping in to write the budget for the governor,” she said.
Emerson said she campaigned for criminal justice reform last fall but hasn’t heard from GOP legislators about developing proposals.
“We truly want bipartisan work,” she said. “Their idea of working to be bipartisan is that this is their idea.”
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is expected to unveil his 2019-21 proposed state budget on Feb. 28.