Brown County officials say the state public defender’s office is failing

There have been a backlog cases and a shortage of attorneys willing to take them
Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 10:46 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Brown County officials say the state has failed them and inmates by allowing a build up of serious cases in the local courts.

There are currently 300 cases in the county in need of a lawyer, a responsibility that falls on the state public defender’s office.

“At least for the next several months, and for other places years, [there’s] a backlog from covid. We’re still trying to dig out of that,” State Public Defender Kelli Thompson said on Tuesday before the Brown County Public Safety Committee.

The backlog is creating a recipe that the Brown County Board of Supervisors Chairman described as a burden on the county.

“It’s the state’s responsibility, and in some cases, I’m not saying you aren’t trying but it’s failing. The system is failing. Right now, it’s failing the person who’s in jail to a speedy trial,” Chairman Patrick Buckley said while sitting as a member of the audience.

The State Public Defender’s Office appoints lawyers to defendants who can’t afford one. Its Green Bay office represents clients in Brown, Door, and Kewaunee counties, and they pay a rate of $70 per hour for handling its cases.

“Brown County does not seem to have a shortage of lawyers. We have a shortage of individuals who are willing to take these cases and that’s been difficult for us,” Thompson said.

Up until recently, the public defender’s office had a shortage of attorneys but it’s now fully staffed at 14. Still, they can’t keep up with the caseload.

“I don’t want to pretend it’s not a statewide issue, but Brown County right now for us is one of our three most difficult areas. There’s no doubt about it,” Thompson said.

If a person has been in jail for more than 60 days, a Brown County commissioner will send their case to a circuit court judge, who then appoints them a lawyer at a rate of $100 per hour.

When that happens, the county has to foot the bill. Not the state.

“I suspect crime isn’t going to go down significantly in Brown County. And everything, I understand about the district attorney’s office is that they are incredibly shorthanded,” Brown County Circuit Court Judge Tammy Jo Hock.

There were suggestions in using funds from the American Rescue Plan that Wisconsin received to either pay back the county for the taxpayer money it spent, or for the public defender’s office to boost the fees it pays lawyers. However, no clear decision was made.

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