Hometown News Group
During its Tuesday, Aug. 19 meeting, the Dane County Public Protection and Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a resolution introduced by Dane County Board Supervisors Melanie Hampton and Dianne Hesselbein that urges the state of Wisconsin to fully staff District Attorney (DA) offices throughout the state.
Hampton advised that the resolution go before the Executive Committee, and be considered during the next meeting of the Dane County Board, scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 4. The resolution was prompted by a series of recent reports that revealed critical statewide understaffing of DA offices.
A report by the Legislative Audit Bureau used a standard weighted caseload formula and found that the Dane County District Attorney’s Office needs 11 new Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs) to be fully staffed.
A report by the Institute for Law and Policy Planning found that law enforcement staffing has expanded at five times the rate of DA offices, and arrests referred to the DA’s office grew by 15 times the office’s growth.
“It is my understanding that the Dane County DA’s Office is operating with the same level of staffing it has had since 1987,” said Judge Patrick Fiedler, Dane County Circuit Court, Branch 8, Presiding Judge of the Criminal Rotation, and former Wis. Department of Corrections Secretary. “They do an outstanding job in attempting to spread themselves as much as they can given the case load, but the attention they can devote to each case is not adequate and we can’t proceed in court as timely as we could if they had adequate staffing.”
Brian Blanchard, Dane County District Attorney, said handling the overload of casework has become a battle just to keep his department’s head above water, and has reduced the ability of the DA’s office to sufficiently fulfill its purpose–battling crime in the county.
“We continue to prioritize our work and seek every efficiency we can think of,” Blanchard said. “But once you are down to having only minutes per case, the quality of justice is imperiled.”
The ramifications of understaffing are exemplified not just by the overwhelmed prosecutors and backed up court dockets but also by frustrated victims of crime.
“The process can be scary as it is because victims typically are not familiar with the judicial system,” said Fiedler. “And that is compounded because I am sure the victims are wondering why it takes so long to come to a resolution. Everyone involved wants the criminal cases handled expeditiously and things are not moving the way they should.”
Jim Palmer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said the understaffing is a matter of public safety.
“With any legal or criminal matter, the appropriate resolution is in everyone’s best interest,” Palmer said. “Maintaining law and order in our communities requires effective policing and prosecution. The greater the backlog of cases, the more shortcuts have to be taken by necessity and that is not in the best interest of the public.”
Palmer said if ADAs had more time to spend on each case, they could find more innovative solutions and criminals would be handed the penalties they deserve, or when appropriate, directed toward the rehabilitation help they need.
“When your workload is such that you can’t keep up, the quality of the resolution is diminished,” Palmer said. “It affects the quality of public safety for everyone.”