A study conducted by the Sixth Amendment Center showed Wisconsin court-appointed defense attorneys were not being paid enough to provide effective counsel to poor criminal defendants.
States are constitutionally obligated to provide court-appointed defense lawyers to people who cannot afford them. The study found Wisconsin’s compensation rate for court-appointed defense attorneys is $40 an hour, which is the lowest in the country.
In an email to The Badger Herald, Cecelia Klingele, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said low compensation rates often stop lawyers with other options from taking criminal cases.
“The work then goes to lawyers with the least experience or with the worst prospects of finding other work,” Klingele said. “This raises serious quality control issues.”
According to David Carroll, executive director of Sixth Amendment Center, the study evaluated compensation rates around the country and surveyed criminal defense lawyers to understand how the rates affected their decisions to take defense cases.
The study reported the prescribed $40 an hour rate was too low, Carroll said. When compared with the compensation rate of $90 an hour in South Dakota, where costs of living are not too high, Wisconsin’s rate is less than half, he said.
Wisconsin’s compensation to court-appointed defense attorneys is a flat rate, while other states also include compensation for overhead costs as well as the flat fee, Carroll said.
Klingele said receiving a flat fee as compensation reduced a lawyer’s ability to give effective counsel. This is because lawyers then take on several cases at once and are unable to give enough time to each client. This prevents them from engaging in effective fact investigation and legal research, she said.
“Flat fees encourage lawyers to take shortcuts in representing clients or face a significant financial loss,” Klingele said.
Carroll said the need for court-appointed defense attorneys has to decrease as well. Most cases are non-violent and could be dealt with in other ways, such as providing drug rehabilitation, which also help rebuild the convicts’ lives and overcome poverty. The formal criminal justice procedures should only be used for violent felonies or cases with a high probability of jail time, he said.
“[The government doesn’t] see the impact of that on tens of thousands of people who go through the criminal court lined up with the conviction that impacts whether they can get a job, public housing, student loans, a lot of things that can help raise them out of poverty,” Carroll said.
The study suggests Wisconsin State Supreme Court raise the rate to $85 an hour and tie it to an annual review that automatically updates the rate based on how overhead costs change each year, he said.
Klingele said this raise is feasible if the government and communities find ways to pay for them. Increasing hourly rates would make it possible for private lawyers to take on more criminal cases at less of a loss and increase the odds that more skilled and experienced lawyers will accept appointment in these cases, she said.
“[The raise could be feasible] only if we decide we’re serious about providing meaningful representation in criminal cases,” Klingele said.