Bill would add staff to county district attorney offices

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MADISON — Nearly 54 additional prosecutors would be hired statewide under a Republican-backed proposal unveiled Wednesday that’s designed to address a shortfall of staff in district attorneys’ offices.

It’s one of several tough-on-crime bills the Assembly is taking up this week as it pushes to complete its work for the session by Thursday. The anti-crime bills, always popular with Republicans, would give them pro-law enforcement talking points as they head into the fall election.

The proposed hiring of additional prosecutors, to take place in mid-2019, is an attempt to address a shortfall that has existed for years and that law enforcement officials have begged the Legislature to solve to no avail. District attorneys and others have said staffing levels have not kept pace with the workload, creating backlogs, rushing of complicated cases and long delays before some cases go to trial.

But now there is momentum in the Republican-controlled Assembly to take action, said Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who is leading the charge on the issue along with Rep. Mark Born, a Beaver Dam Republican.

“This is an opportunity for us to make a smart, structural change to our system,” Nygren said.

Nygren said the additional staffing would be proposed as an amendment to a $57 million bill up for a Thursday vote that would require the Department of Corrections to recommend revoking probation, parole or extended supervision for anyone under its supervision who is charged with a felony or violent misdemeanor.

Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke, of Milwaukee, said you can’t just add prosecutors to send more people to prison without also looking at adding public defenders and judges.

“You cannot simply add to one side of the ledger in the criminal justice system,” Goyke said.

Under the plan, the additional prosecutors would go to the 40 highest-need counties, mostly rural, as identified in a 2014 study. That study, by the Legislative Audit Bureau, determined that 140 more prosecutors were needed statewide.

No counties would get more than two additional prosecutors and only those that were identified as being 79 percent staffed or lower were considered. Many of the positions would go to counties to turn part-time positions into full-time.

The nearly $4 million cost would be pushed off to the next budget, with the hiring to take place after July 2019, thereby delaying the need for the Legislature to immediately come up with the funding.

Nygren said the positions would go to the counties that needed them most, not targeted to only Republican parts of the state. The state’s two most Democratic counties, Milwaukee and Dane, would not get any additional positions.

“You’re not going to see games played with this list,” Nygren said. “At some point power shifts.”

The idea is to be voted on by the Assembly on Thursday, but it’s unclear if it has support to pass the Senate. Nygren said he had buy-in from Gov. Scott Walker for the idea, but not with the Senate, which is also controlled by Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Other crime bills on the Assembly’s agenda to pass Wednesday would:

— require a mandatory five-year minimum sentence, up from three years and six months, for repeat offenders convicted of serious violent crimes including murder and second-degree homicide.

— impose a mandatory three-year sentence for illegally possessing a gun while on probation, parole or extended release.

— require corrections officials to recommend revoking someone’s parole, probation or extended supervision upon a felony or violent misdemeanor charge.

— make carjacking a felony and eliminate a requirement that judges must decide whether to make someone eligible to have his or her record expunged at the time of sentencing. Offenders instead could request expungement a year after they finish their sentence.

— allow for the most serious juvenile offenders to be kept in prison longer than the current three-year maximum.

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