The headlines earlier this week spelled it out: the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau says the state is short 117 prosecutors. At least.
The report says the district attorney's office in rapidly growing Kenosha County is short 4.45 positions. It's actually 6.45 because the report counted as regular staff two grant funded positions, one of which will expire soon. Walworth County, also fast growing, is nearly 2.5 prosecutor positions short -- and hasn't had any added staff since 1989.
The problem began in 1990 when the state took over funding district attorneys' officers statewide. The idea was to improve pay to increase professionalism and retention. The reality has been just the opposite.
Now, when a county district attorney needs more help, a begathon is held over a period of years which is likely to be ignored because that request is lumped together with the entire state which goes before a legislature and governor not known for being friendly to prosecutors.
Why should they be? If prosecution was fully funded, then maybe there might be some time to prosecute more corrupt politicians.
The shortfall -- the state admits to 117 positions, so you can imagine it's likely to be even higher -- didn't just happen overnight. A few years ago the governor cut 15 prosecution positions from the budget, fired another 15 prosecutors, refused to accept federally funded Byrne grant prosecution positions and gave all state prosecutors a four-day layoff. In all fairness, the governor didn't do this alone. The legislature went along with it and hasn't done anything since to fix the mess.
When prosecutors are kept barefoot and pregnant it means that attention can only be given to the most serious cases. The public suffers.
A prosecutor's caseload could consist of 20, 30 or even more jury trials scheduled for the same time in front of the same judge on any given Monday with pages upon pages of other cases on the court calendar for the rest of the week. Now we know you can't try or even hope to prepare that many cases but that's the reality the public suffers. When people, including some judges, complain about plea bargaining they ought to look in the mirror because they helped create the mess.
Not only are prosecutors overworked and burned out but way underfunded.
Last year starting prosecutors got a raise -- to something like $46,000 a year. To someone earning $38,000 a year that seems like a lot of money. Not quite so for someone who spent seven years in college and may have over $100,000 in student loans to repay. In Kenosha County there are paralegals who make more than the prosecutors they work for. A former deputy sheriff who went to law school and became a prosecutor would be paid more had he stayed on the sheriff's department. Go figure.
The low starting salary isn't the worst part. A few years ago the state abolished the "step system" which grants increases based on seniority and experience. Most public employees, such as teachers, police officers and firefighters, have pay progression. Not the state's prosecutors. Not only is the starting pay low, it doesn't go anywhere. Many talented young prosecutors leave because they can't make ends meet.
On top of this, the legislature, while ignoring the prosecution crisis, wants to appear tough on crime so it passes new laws, often without input from the prosecutors who are left to enforce them. Talking tough about crime sounds good but when you don't fund what you enact it's a strong measure of hypocrisy. There's no free lunch.
If you want law enforcement -- one of government's basic responsibilities and the sovereign's basic duty to all citizens -- then you have to pay for it. You can't go into McDonald's and say, "I'd like a Big Mac Extra Value Meal" and then not pay for it. This is not rocket science. It doesn't take years of study or whatever.
What it takes to solve this problem are politicians who have the integrity to carry out the basic responsibilities of government. Anyone know where we can find one?