LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - A rise in La Crosse County felony cases is putting a strain on area public defenders.
The number of felony cases in La Crosse County so far this year is at a 20-year high.
The Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office is the agency responsible for providing legal representation to all who can't afford it, but public defenders can't ethically take all the cases and that creates issues.
"That's one of the big perks I find of being a public defender, is that I get to be there for people at the moment and really hit the ground running,” assistant state public defender Meredith Davis said.
She’s been a public defender for more than five years, working in the state agency's La Crosse office for the last 2 1/2 years.
"I really diligently represent people,” she said.
But she says the way things are now, not everyone facing charges gets that legal representation right away.
"I would say those are the cases that are breaking a lot of hearts now,” she said.
Over the years, Davis has seen the number of felony filings in the county rise.
"Individually, it always keeps us busy,” she said. “Structurally as an agency, it has a big impact."
Davis explained there are county cases the public defender's office can't take, either because attorneys don't have the time to handle them, or more often, a case conflict gets in the way.
For example, 17 people in La Crosse County faced similar charges after a 2015 methamphetamine bust.
"Because of that, because people are witnesses in each other’s cases, there are overlapping defenses,” she said, so the public defender's office could only ethically defend one of the 17 and had to hire private bar attorneys from across the state for the rest who needed representation.
"The Public Defender’s Office runs out of money almost every fiscal year because they exhaust funds to pay private bar attorneys,” La Crosse County Deputy District Attorney Jessica Skemp said, adding that that often results in an emergency appropriation so the office can pay the private attorneys.
"That does affect taxpayers,” Skemp said.
The Public Defender’s Office pays private attorneys less than the going rate for most legal services, so that contributes to the difficulty of finding one. Davis said felony defendants can wait in jail for weeks before they are appointed an attorney, and that's something no one in the criminal justice system wants to see.
"People's lives don't stop while they're waiting,” Davis said. "Their kids are on the outside, their families are on the outside."
"It's sad, because even though I'm a prosecutor, I don't want to see somebody sit in jail and drag a case out needlessly,” Skemp said.
Davis said increasing the Public Defender's Office's budget would allow it to pay public attorneys more and motivate them to take cases.
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