Many public defenders facing burnout amid high caseloads, staff shortages

Before the pandemic, about 32,000 cases were sitting on the desks of public defenders statewide, but that number has soared to about 64,000 cases in 2022, according to an official.

LA CROSSE (WKBT) — According to Legislative Liaison for the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Office Adam Plotkin, the caseload sitting on the desks of Wisconsin public defenders has doubled since before the pandemic.

He said that in 2019, there were about 32,000 cases sitting on the desks of public defenders statewide but that number has soared to about 64,000 cases.

Plotkin added that turnover at state public defenders’ offices has worsened in recent years. He said that in 2019, the turnover at public defenders’ offices was about 10 or 11 percent, but this year it’s become about twice that amount.

“This most recent year, that turnover jumped to just about 20 percent,” Plotkin said.

On Thursday, Plotkin added that the issue of a shortage of public defenders is impacting the legal system statewide.

According to Monroe County District Attorney Kevin Croninger, the issue of a shortage of public defenders also leads to longer wait times for victims.

“One of the questions I get from victims often is why is this taking so long,” he said.

Croninger added that district attorneys’ offices are also facing staffing shortages. He said that in Monroe County, there is a staffing shortage to some extent, though the state has granted the office several new positions in recent years.

“Monroe County is still understaffed by the metrics that the state uses for prosecutors,” he said. “Certainly we could use more prosecutors in our office,” he added.

Croninger added that the staffing issues at the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office are less significant than they were 2 or 3 years ago but there are still concerns.

Croninger also said that the work of prosecutors and defense attorneys has become more complicated in the last decade and a half due to new technology, such as further use of scientific evidence in criminal investigations.

“Whether prosecuting or defending a case, they have to spend a lot more time on cases than they had to spend 10 or 15 years ago,” he said.

Croninger said staffing improvements could help address some of these newer issues.

Meanwhile, La Crosse County Circuit Court Judge Scott Horne served as La Crosse County District Attorney from 1985 to 2007. He said that in certain cases involving conflicts of interest, the public defender’s office hires outside legal counsel for defendants.

Horne said private attorneys have become less willing to accept clients from public defenders in recent years, making it harder for some defendants to find a lawyer.

“The problem over the last 5 or 10 years has become acute in that there are not enough private practice attorneys willing to accept criminal defense cases referred by the public defender’s office,” he said.