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Few Attorneys Answering Call To Defend Poor Due To Low Pay


The Wisconsin Supreme Court is considering a petition from criminal defense lawyers that asks to up the pay they receive for clients who can't afford to pay for an attorney but are facing criminal charges.

Former Northwoods Public Defender Ann Munninghoff-Eshelman hired on as this type of for-hire attorney after retiring from the Public Defender's office. Munninghoff-Eshelman says a number of defendants either don't qualify for a Public Defender... though they don't have a lot of money... or more likely, the Public Defender has a conflict in the case...

"....the problem is the other 40 percent of the cases that need to be appointed to private Bar attorneys because of conflicts of interest. Those attorneys, the legislature sets the hourly rate which they will be reimbursed for their representation of indigent defendants. That rate hasn't changed since the 1990's and that's $40 an hour...."

While that sounds like a fair amount, Munninghoff-Eshelman says the attorneys have considerable overhead to pay for, including administrative assistance and malpractice insurance. She says in other courts, such as child or elderly cases, counties pay about $100 an hour. That is the figure the lawyers presented to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to pay for the appointed criminal attorneys...

"...attorneys in Wisconsin don't get drafted to handle public defender cases. They are called on a case-by-case basis and asked if they will accept representation. The trend has been getting worse and worse as fewer and fewer attorney who want to handle cases, especially if they have any complexity to them...."

The result is many defendants go weeks without a lawyer.

Wisconsin's reimbursement rate is the lowest in the nation.

The legislature is charged with funding the lawyers representing defendants who can't pay for attorneys. It's unknown how long the state Supreme Court will take to act on the petition.

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