A key component of the U.S. justice system is the right to a fair and speedy trial. After all, the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution promises effective representation for those that cannot afford it.
But in January, six Wisconsinites filed a class-action lawsuit after they felt these rights were violated in the Western District Court of Wisconsin. According to their attorney, these six people sat in jail for anywhere from 21 to 75 days before a lawyer would take their case.
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon event in Wisconsin. At $40 per hour, the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office offers the lowest compensation for attorneys in the nation, making it extremely difficult to find public defenders to take on cases.
Thankfully, Assembly Republicans have just asked Gov. Tony Evers to budget for an increase in the pay rate of public defenders, proposing that rates be raised to $70 an hour. This will hopefully incentivize public defenders to take on cases, as the current low pay rate is extremely discouraging to defenders in Wisconsin.
Raising pay to a more comparable rate is extremely important in protecting the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees one’s right to an attorney and a speedy trial. Without an acceptable pay rate, public defenders refuse cases, and situations similar to those six people who spent over three weeks in jail will continue to occur.
State Public Defender Kelli Thompson said this proposal would “enable all of us in the criminal justice system to work together to protect Wisconsin’s communities and guarantee the constitutional rights of individuals.”
Truthfully, the question is not whether this type of pay raise is necessary, but rather why it has taken so long to implement, especially considering that the Wisconsin Supreme Court raised its court-appointed attorneys’ hourly pay from $70 to $100 an hour in May of last year.
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While this reform is important to protecting citizens’ rights to effective representation, it seems that this is a common-sense improvement that should have been proposed a while ago. Though the proposal was introduced by Republicans, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers seems to be on board.
As Evers’ spokesperson Britt Cudaback explained, the governor feels criminal justice reform should be a bipartisan issue. Evers has already met with stakeholders and plans to include the pay increase for public defenders in his upcoming budget.
Since many attorneys are used to earning a minimum of $70 per hour, this proposal will hopefully ensure that the number of public defenders in Wisconsin will increase, and the Constitution’s guaranteed right to a speedy legal process can be upheld. In a state as large as Wisconsin, however, one has to wonder why it took so long for this to be proposed.
Considering that the issue led to a lawsuit from six people, it is clear that a shortage of public defenders is a major problem being ignored by the state government. With the implementation of a pay increase, though, public defenders will likely see an incentive to take on cases, and Wisconsin courts can ensure they are maintaining fair and ethical trial processes.
Courtney Degen ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in political science and journalism.