By Shereen Siewert

The Marathon County Board of Supervisors this week rejected a budget amendment that would have funded an additional assistant district attorney and legal secretary position in a department facing the largest prosecutor understaffing in county history.

In a Nov. 12 presentation to the county, District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon said such significant understaffing can lead to victims’ rights issues, miscarriages of justice, high staff turnover, inexperienced staff, and delays in case processing.  Inadequate staffing levels can result a real financial loss to taxpayers as well.

Wetzsteon said 260 of the current 350 inmates in the Marathon County Jail have pending criminal charges. Of those, 36 inmates have spent more than 200 days in jail, costing the county more than $641,000.  In addition, 31 inmates who are awaiting sentencing on probation revocation have cost the county more than $192,000; those inmates cannot be sentenced without a prosecutor available.

But jail overcrowding and cost is just one facet of a more complicated issue. The ramifications of excessive prosecutorial caseloads extend throughout the criminal justice system.  Excessive caseloads lead to long backlogs in court settings, including trials, and bottom-line plea bargain offers. Defendants who have been unable to post bail thus remain incarcerated for months because overburdened prosecutors do not have time to focus on their cases.

Excessive prosecutorial caseloads can contribute to the delay of trials for months or even years, leading some defendants who would have exercised their trial rights to simply plead guilty and accept a sentence of time served. Some defendants may plead guilty to crimes simply to get out of jail.

Victims are also impacted. Overburdened prosecutors have little time to meet with victims and may not receive pertinent information from them that would help to convict or sentence the guilty party. If they do have the opportunity to contact victims, overburdened prosecutors may be rushed for time.

In short, say judges, prosecutors, and law professors, shortages can mean the guilty go free, the innocent are wrongfully convicted and victims rights are not always served.

The proposal sought to shift $156,100 from Start Right’s roughly $2.6 million budget to the District Attorney’s office, an option that several supervisors said forced them to choose between supporting the county’s children and victims of crimes.

“It felt like we picked Start Right from thin air,” Dist. 1 Supervisor Katie Rosenberg said. “It’s not at all clear where that idea came from.”

The measure failed by a vote of 22-11. See the vote tally, below.

Wetzsteon tells Wausau Pilot and Review that although funding of prosecutors is a state responsibility, the impact of such significant understaffing has a direct impact on Marathon County residents.

“For the last decade, this county has acknowledged the connection between the understaffing of prosecutors and the negative impact on the administration of justice,” Wetzsteon said. “Through the county’s prior funding support we were able to staff county initiatives with our prosecutors, initiatives that resulted in significant cost savings for the County while providing valuable services for our system. Now, we are 5.7 prosecutors short and staffed at 68 percent with no foreseeable relief from the state and now rejection by the county.  Going forward the understaffing will necessitate an evaluation of the allocation of limited resources.”

Marathon County has funded at least one prosecutor position since 2008. That changed in September, when the state awarded 3.5 prosecutor positions to Marathon County. Six days later, Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger authorized withdrawing funding for 2.5 positions, leaving the department with a net gain of one position. A state workload analysis shows Marathon County needs 17.7 prosecutors, but the state funds only 12 of those, leaving the DA’s office at just 68 percent.

The result for prosecutors has been dramatic and has led to high turnover — 22 prosecutors have left since 2010 alone. In an earlier meeting with county leaders, Wetzsteon included a resignation letter she received in May from a newly hired prosecutor whose dream was to serve as an assistant district attorney, only to find the caseload utterly unmanageable.

“In the two months I have worked as an Assistant District Attorney, I have worked more hours than I thought humanly possible. And it wasn’t enough,” the letter reads. “There was always more to do. I was always behind. The office is grossly understaffed and I realize it is not your fault. I find that the caseload is untenable.”

Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon (Contributed photo)

County supervisors largely argued that it is the state’s mandate, not the county’s to pay for prosecutor positions. Board Chair Kurt Gibbs said that by funding positions at the county level, there is “no incentive for the state to step up when this issue comes around.”

Dave Oberbeck, who was recently appointed to represent Dist. 9, urged the board to take the issue to the state Capitol to show how dire the situation truly is.

Gibbs agreed, saying the county could do more to state the case for additional prosecutors.

But Wetzsteon said inadequate funding of prosecutor positions is detrimental to the administration of justice and the preservation of public safety in Marathon County.

“The current system is in crisis and undermines public safety,” Wetzsteon said in her presentation.

Official vote tally on shifting $156,100 from Start Right to the Marathon County District Attorney’s office, Nov. 14, 2019