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Wisconsin lawyers seek to increase public defender pay

MADISON — Private attorneys in Wisconsin are again pushing for a pay increase when they are appointed by the state public defender to represent criminal defendants who can’t afford a lawyer.

The state Supreme Court has scheduled a May 16 hearing to listen to the arguments about increasing the pay rate to $100 an hour, the Wisconsin State Journal reported . The current pay rate of $40 an hour is the lowest in the U.S.

The Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Wisconsin Association of Justice and a group of lawyers that includes two former state Supreme Court justices, a former state attorney general and several prominent criminal defense attorneys filed a petition regarding the pay raise last year.

The rate isn’t enough to mount a serious defense, lawyers said. Costs include acquiring expert witnesses and investigators, running an office and an attorney’s salary.

The pay rate has been an issue for decades. The Office of the State Public Defender has asked to increase the reimbursement in all of its budget requests since 1995.

The Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center is working on an in-depth study to present to the court to illustrate how the lack of pay is leading to a shortage of private lawyers in the state who are willing to take public defender appointments, said John Birdsall, a Milwaukee criminal defense lawyer and one of the petitioners.

State Reps. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison, and Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, have been circulating a proposal that would create tiered increases in the private bar compensation rate. Their plan would have reimbursement rates of $55, $60 and $70 per hour, depending on a case’s difficulty.

The tiered approach would be an alternative to the $100 an hour rate, which would cost $31.8 million annually, Tusler and Goyke said.