NewsState

Actions

Public defender shortage overwhelming Wisconsin's justice system: 'More cases than lawyers'

Since the depths of the pandemic, public defender’s offices throughout the state have run into issues with the shortage of attorneys.
milwaukee county court house
Posted at 12:47 PM, Sep 01, 2023

MILWAUKEE — It was Wednesday morning when the preliminary hearing for a recent homicide case was delayed because the defendant did not have representation.

Police believe William Pinkin shot and killed a man at a gas station in Milwaukee. However, the case is now delayed because there wasn't a public defender assigned to him before the hearing. He was assigned one Thursday morning.

Since the depths of the pandemic, public defender’s offices throughout the state have run into issues with the shortage of attorneys.

"We know we have that very dedicated workforce," said Milwaukee County Public Defender Thomas Reed.

Reed is aware of the problem. He says there was a conflict of interest in his office for the Pinkin case. However, when they turned to the backup system of private attorneys - no one was available for the case.

"We have a lot of places, Milwaukee is one of them, where we have more cases than we do lawyers,” Reed explained.

He says the shortage has improved since the pandemic. There are 60 total positions in the public defender’s office that handle adult criminal cases. Reed says 52 of the positions are filled.

Deputy Chief Kent Lovern with the Milwaukee County District Attorney says, “We are seeing shortages of attorneys in a way I have never seen in my career. It used to be a very common place to have an attorney the moment the person is charged with a crime. So it's a crisis to me, sure.”

He says public defenders are an important part of the justice system.

"It's a difficult job, but it's an honorable job, and we need good attorneys to represent people charged with crimes," Lovern explained.

When it comes to the cases in the county, Reed says, "I think the cases have been pretty constant actually. But have had a lot of gun violence so we have a lot of serious cases and those are ones that require more experienced lawyers."

A shortage in the public defender’s office can mean taxpayers cover a bill for more expensive, private attorneys. But Reed says there are about 30% fewer lawyers since the pandemic in the private sector that can take these types of criminal cases, which makes a perfect storm for a backlog.

"We have some cases where the length of time it takes to us to find a lawyer is from our perspective, unacceptable,” Reed says.

The state recently raised pay for public defenders, but Thomas says it will take some time to get caught up.