By The Associated Press
Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. May 18, 2023.
Editorial: A step toward a more just system
A proposal in the Wisconsin Legislature to increase pay for public defenders and assistant district attorneys strikes us as a necessary step to safeguard both public safety and the rights of those accused of crimes.
The plan, which was advanced Tuesday by the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, increases starting pay for the roles to $36 an hour. That’s a little less than a $9/hour raise, bumping the pay from around $57,000 annually to $75,000 per year.
That’s a big jump. It’s fair for people to ask why such an increase is necessary when so many people see miniscule raises in their jobs. But it’s also fair to point out what’s at stake.
Prosecution in the American court system is always a publicly-funded role. That’s because it’s the state or the federal government that brings the charges. Using private attorneys to do so simply wouldn’t make sense.
The Constitution also guarantees defendants competent legal representation. No one is required to have an attorney when charged — and some people do choose to defend themselves — but anyone who wants representation must have it. Fulfilling that guarantee requires public defenders.
The workload for each role is substantial. Bringing or defending a charge competently requires familiarity with the evidence, numerous interviews and depositions with those involved, discussions with experts and potential witnesses. It requires long hours of research to determine which laws apply and develop familiarity with precedent cases that could come into play.
In other words, the work attorneys put in for criminal cases is considerably more intensive than what any courtroom drama shows. The result is constant strain from court deadlines, mounting caseloads and the time it can take away from caring for oneself and one’s family.
Unlike many other stressful jobs, those who work on behalf of the public in criminal law have an obvious and lucrative exit. Private practice is often substantially more profitable, and you get to choose which cases you want to pursue.
When the exit sign is that brightly lit, retention is a challenge. In January, the State Bar of Wisconsin called understaffing a “crisis situation.” Raising pay won’t instantly fix staffing issues, but it could well prevent them from getting worse.
What happens when things get worse? We saw a preview of that during the COVID-19 pandemic, when states shut down their courtrooms. Cases couldn’t be tried, leaving some of those charged in jail for much longer than normal. One group of defendants sued, saying they went weeks without even having public defenders assigned to their cases.
Wisconsin still has a 35,000-case backlog, according to an Associated Press article on the Legislature’s proposal. And, while speedy trials are a Constitutional right, there isn’t a good timeline to resolve this load.
More than just defendants are harmed when that kind of situation emerges. Victims and their families are left waiting for justice, too. The inability to conclude the trial looms over everyone, making it difficult to fully move on with life.
Having a functioning and well-staffed system for public defenders and prosecutors isn’t optional. It shouldn’t seem optional. It’s a requirement, both morally and constitutionally.
The proposal currently making its way through the Legislature seems to have bipartisan support. That’s good. Both sides should recognize the need. And, in this case, they seem to be acting on it as well.
Whether you realize it or not, this is something everyone in the state needs. Anyone can become a victim of crime. There may not be any quick fixes to the challenges Wisconsin’s legal system faces, but the proposed increases seem like a step in the right direction as the state wrestles with solutions.
Wisconsin State Journal. May 21, 2023.
Editorial: Keep diversity efforts on campus
When a UW-Madison student’s racist rant went viral on social media recently, chief diversity officer LaVar Charleston condemned the hatred, discouraged violence and thoughtfully engaged with protesters on campus.
“I want our Black students to know that I do indeed stand with you,” Charleston said. “I look forward to working with you to help realize sustainable change that makes things better not for just students who are here right now, but for all of our future students as well.”
As the point person for ensuring that minority students feel welcome on Wisconsin’s flagship university, Charleston’s words and actions have been helpful in lowering tension and seeking further progress on inclusion.
The racist post on TikTok, apparently recorded in a private room, showed a young white student using a slur and saying she wants to return Black people to slavery. She also says she’s going to kill herself. The context isn’t clear, though her prejudice is vile.
“Some have called for the speaker of these racist words to be expelled,” said Charleston, who is Black. “Some have called for worse. Simply stated, the law does not allow the university to take punitive action for words like these spoken in private spaces, even when those words are racist and hateful.
“But that does not mean that we have to be silent,” he continued. “We too can use our voices to express our values. And we can use our voices to support each other and to articulate both our condemnation of hate and our support for diversity within our community.”
That’s a strong message, even if it disappointed student activists.
Yet if Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, had his way, Charleston would be the one removed from campus. Just days after the video emerged, triggering outrage, Vos called for cutting all positions focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion across the University of Wisconsin System.
That would be a terrible mistake. As the racist video shows, some students still harbor ugly beliefs.
Moreover, Charleston’s professionalism demonstrates the value of his position and others like it to counter bigotry and discrimination. Having a leader on campus advocating for greater diversity and understanding across cultures encourages a better learning environment for all.
Despite significant effort, UW-Madison and other System schools have struggled to attract more Black students for decades. Only about 2.4% of students identify solely as Black at UW-Madison, compared to 6.8% of Wisconsin’s population. And when students of multiple races are included, the campus doesn’t fare much better. UW ranks low among its Big Ten peers.
Wisconsin’s universities should better reflect the communities they serve. Besides ensuring fair opportunities in higher education, a more inclusive campus better prepares all students for the increasingly connected and diverse world.
While Charleston was working to improve a volatile situation on campus, Vos only inflamed tension by insulting Charleston’s work. Vos told a conservative radio host he wanted to cut $14 million for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) positions on public universities because these workers are “burrowed in like a tick on every single college campus.”
“If we don’t figure a way to take race out of every single conversation and go to the colorblind society that Martin Luther King talked about,” Vos told WISN-AM, “I think it’s going to make even more division than we’ve had in the past.
“I frankly think we have gotten to the point where instead of having an institute of higher learning, we have an institute of indoctrination.”
That’s absurd. Ignoring racism won’t make it go away. And pretending that bias — be it overt, hidden or subconscious — doesn’t exist will only allow it to perpetuate.
Everyone needs a fair shot at a college degree so Wisconsin’s talent isn’t wasted. Being open and welcoming also will keep our state attractive to talent from around the globe.
Vos offers little if any evidence to back up his claim that diversity offices on campuses have contributed to the racial divide. Vos seems to be parroting presidential hopeful and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed a ban last week on DEI funding for public universities there. Wisconsin shouldn’t follow DeSantis’ divisive political stunt.
Charleston has shown he’s doing just the opposite of what Vos alleges. UW’s chief diversity officer strives to unify campus and remove barriers to success. That way, UW can better educate, innovate and compete.
Kenosha News. May 21, 2023.
Editorial: Wisconsin Elections Commission proposal needs new look
Earlier this month, as promised, the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget writing committee axed more than 500 spending proposals from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
Snared in that start-from-scratch net was a request from the Wisconsin Elections Commission to beef up confidence in state and local elections by adding 10 full-time staff for a new inspector general office at a cost of $1.9 million over two years.
The new division in the WEC would handle voters’ concerns and deal with the recent spike in records requests and complaints that have been hard for the state agency to deal with in a timely fashion. It would also be charged with helping to train local election officials and reviewing the accessibility of polling sites.
The proposal got unanimous support from the three Republican and three Democratic election commissioners last year and the Republican chair of the WEC lamented GOP’s axing of the proposal.
“I certainly hope it comes back,” said Don Millis. “These are things we can do to improve confidence, and that’s where this inspector general comes in.”
He said he is hopeful the proposal can be taken up as separate legislation, outside the budget process, by state Republicans.
The 2020 presidential election and the 2022 midterms – fueled with controversies and skeptics hunting for evidence of voter fraud – which was not found – brought about a surge in complaints and records requests for the state agency.
According to the WEC, ahead of the 2022 midterm, the state agency received more than three times the number of complaints it had in 2020 and records requests topped eight times its 2016 average.
Whether that will continue in the future, given our fractious political nature in the state, is up for debate.
We’re not fans of growing the size of government at any level unless a need can be demonstrated and—yes, we understand Wisconsin is giddy about its record surplus and there are many politicians – Republican and Democrat – filled with ideas on how to spend that.
But the WEC proposal has some merit and the work of the state agency to build confidence in state and local elections and the 1,800 local clerks who run them is a high priority.
If the WEC proposal can be revived – and it may not be – we would suggest it come back in a pared down version. Are 10 full-time staffers really needed? Can that $1.9 million over two years be reduced to a more manageable number? And we would also like to see a sunset clause attached to this proposal.
If voter complaints and records requests continue to surge after two years, then the Legislature could revisit it.