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Wisconsin's Public Defender's Office assigns private attorneys around 40 percent of its cases and pays them the lowest rate in the nation. Now, the office is having a difficult time finding lawyers willing to take those cases. Tomorrow, the state Supreme Court will take up a petition that would give attorneys a raise. Wisconsin Public Radio's Danielle Kaeding has more.
DANIELLE KAEDING, BYLINE: On a Sunday afternoon, Travis Slattery is making the rounds at the Taylor County jail in north central Wisconsin.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can I help you?
TRAVIS SLATTERY: Yeah. I just called ahead. I'm here to see a couple clients that are here.
KAEDING: He's a private lawyer, but he's here to do public defense work. He drove an hour and a half through farmland to get here. Next, he'll drive two more hours through national forestland to meet with more clients in Ashland way up on Lake Superior. Slattery spends a lot of time in his wife's Toyota Prius. He calls it the mobile litigation station.
SLATTERY: It does 400 miles for less than 20 bucks.
KAEDING: Slattery takes cases from the state public defender's office when conflicts come up or they have multiple defendants. But now, he's cutting way back because he can make a lot more money on private criminal defense cases.
SLATTERY: When I get those, I prioritize those and take less public defender stuff.
KAEDING: The Wisconsin Public Defender's Office pays private lawyers like Slattery just $40 an hour to represent their clients. It's the lowest rate in the nation, and it hasn't changed since 1995 when lawmakers lowered it from $50 an hour. Mark Perrine at the Ashland public defender's office says many lawyers just can't afford to do this work anymore.
MARK PERRINE: The rate of pay is too low. It doesn't cover the overhead for most attorneys who have an office.
KAEDING: Lawmakers have introduced several bills over the last two decades to raise the rate, but they haven't gone anywhere. Now, more than 100 lawyers, judges and officials have submitted comments to the Wisconsin Supreme Court as part of a petition to raise the court-appointed rate to $100 an hour. Milwaukee private attorney John Birdsall with the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers says if the court doesn't take action...
JOHN BIRDSALL: Circuit courts in the state will come to a grinding halt, and people will be sitting in jail for extended periods of time. They already are. And there will be a very, very real constitutional crisis.
KAEDING: The U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to a speedy trial. But the struggle to find lawyers can mean people are waiting in jail for months. The Ashland public defender's office has had to bring in attorneys from as far away as Madison, a five-hour drive. Those charged with crimes may lose their job or housing while they wait. And the delay takes an emotional toll on crime victims and their families. And David Carroll with the Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center says Wisconsin's low rate could put attorneys' economic interests at odds with their client's defense.
DAVID CARROLL: If you have a financial conflict that you're going to lose more money the more you work on a case, it's going to have a tendency to try to get the lawyer to get the person to plead quicker.
KAEDING: In fact, a 2015 survey of Wisconsin criminal defense lawyers found they do spend less time with public defense clients than with private clients. About half of those surveyed are taking fewer public defense cases than years past. Attorney Travis Slattery thinks raising the rate would help bring some back into the fold, especially in rural Wisconsin.
SLATTERY: More people like me who are getting started will be inclined to live in areas like this because you can get more business and get your foot in the door.
KAEDING: He thinks a rate increase may also draw more experienced lawyers who right now can't justify the time on the road and lost income. For NPR News, I'm Danielle Kaeding. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.