County officials say low public defender wage could cost La Crosse County millions

La Crosse County officials say the public defender hourly wage could be costing taxpayers millions.

The County executive committee approved a resolution calling for a wage-increase for private attorneys appointed to those cases.

A public defender’s hourly wage in the state of Wisconsin is $40 an hour, the lowest in the nation.

“The normal hourly rate for attorneys in this area would go anywhere from $150 to $250 or more,” said Judge Scott Horne, of La Crosse County.

Law officials say $40 an hour seems like a lot of money but a fresh college law graduate will spend north of $171,000 for school, not including a bachelor’s degree.

“The defense bar is making the argument that it’s simply unfair that when individuals come out of school with very high debt burdens,” Horne said.

He said overhead costs alone are more than the $40 rate set back in 1995.

“That can include support staff office space, it can include equipment computers, that sort of thing,” Horne said.

He said it’s also a problem for those charged with a crime.

“Individuals may be held on cash bonds and because the public defender’s office is unable to find private bar attorneys to handle the cases, they may be sitting in custody for two months or longer simply waiting for a preliminary hearing,” Horne said.

County Board Chair Tara Johnson said this could cost La Crosse County down the road.

“The Legislature needs to do something,” Johnson said.

She said of the 5,700 people booked in jail in 2017, if 1,000 of them had to stay an extra 10 days because a local attorney can’t be found, it would cost the county $1 million extra.

“In La Crosse County we spend about $6.3 million to operate the jail,” Johnson said.

She’s said the county is paying to keep people in jail who haven’t been convicted of a crime.

“They are sitting in our jail charged with an offense and the cost is per day per inmate is about $100,” Johnson said.

Horne said something needs to change.

“I’m not taking a position on what that rate should be, but it should certainly be enough to attract reasonably competent attorneys,” Horne said.

Forty dollars in 1978 had the same buying power as $155 today.

Earlier this week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court raised the hourly rate paid to lawyers for court-appointed cases, from $70 to $100, but declined to take action regarding the $40 rate.