‘Drowning’ in meth and heroin, a Wisconsin county takes a stand for public defenders

Over in Hayward, Wis., a judge has had just about enough of a justice system that is based on extending constitutional rights depending on the income of people. And that’s what the crisis in the public defender system creates.

You have a right to an attorney and if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed — unless there’s nobody available to represent you.

Judge John Yackel, of Sawyer County, said he’s standing up against the system after Wisconsin’s public defender office couldn’t come up with someone to represent a citizen.

Wisconsin pays public defenders $40 an hour and $25 an hour travel expenses. It’s one reason why poor people have a way of ending up in jail.

That’s the lowest rate in the country. And it’s particularly bad in rural areas of the state.

“If people want to be known as the individuals who have allowed rural Wisconsin finally to go over the edge to where drug dealers run freely, well so be it,” Yackel said at a hearing last week, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“Due process of the most guilty is how we protect due process for everyone,” Yackel said.

Lawyers asked the Supreme Court to raise the rate to $100 but the court said it didn’t have the authority. The Legislature punted on taking any action because — let’s face it — nobody scores political points by extending constitutional protections to people accused of crimes.

Yackel, 44, isn’t a “liberal” judge, the JS says. He’s the only judge in the county that is drowning in meth and heroin.

In June, a 30-year old woman was charged with selling. She sat in jail for eight days before posting bail and she still doesn’t have an attorney. Yackel may have to set her free although without representation, she may not know she has the right to a speedy trial.

Archive: A day in the life of a public defender (NewsCut)

From 2015: High-profile public defender Lauri Traub also waits tables (Star Tribune)

  • MrE85

    Thanks for shining a light on this. It’s a national disgrace, playing out at the local level.

    Oh, and welcome back.

  • Erick

    Is Minnesota doing better? Has this been addressed by any of our candidates?

    • chlost

      Minnesota has a State Public Defender’s Office, representing criminal defendants and juveniles in delinquency and child protection matters. The attorneys are salaried employees, but the pay rate is below those attorneys working for the Attorney General’s Office. The Public Defenders often provide supervised student attorneys or volunteer attorneys through their office for arraignments and bail hearings in rural counties.
      There are a few other types of cases, such as for parents involved in child support enforcement (where they could be jailed), child protection (where they could lose their rights to their children) and guardianship and commitment proceedings (where they could lose their liberty by being held in facilities against their will) where people will have a right to an attorney paid for by the county if they can’t afford to pay for one on their own.
      The county paid attorneys are paid at a relatively low amount-in my county I believe it is $100.
      The income level for qualification for the services of a Public Defender are low. Many folks don’t qualify, but would not be able to hire a private attorney.

    • Laurie K.

      In Minnesota, the salary disparities between public defenders and other government agencies is not only unfair, it also prohibits retention of qualified, experienced attorneys. There has been an estimated 50% increase in child protection cases within the last three years with the Minnesota Board of Defense operating with less than 70% of the attorneys recommended by state and national standards. The Minnesota Board of Defense is also operating with less than 60% of support staff recommended by state and national standards.

      A right to representation should not hinge on your economic status. If we want the judicial system to work for all, we must ensure that it works for the most vulnerable people in our society.

      I have seen no political candidate in Minnesota addressing these issues. Probably because as Bob pointed out, no political points are scored when it comes to providing constitutional protections to the accused.

  • chlost

    Yes, welcome back.
    You can probably guess my thoughts on this.
    Minnesota determined that the Counties are responsible for paying for defense services that the Public Defender’s Office was not able or not required to provide. The counties screamed, and I heard some board members’ thoughts ran along the lines of “They are all guilty. Why do they need attorneys, and why would we need to pay for them?”
    Read the Constitution. Read the case law. It’s a right. It applies to everyone.
    Best way to set someone free who has committed a crime is to not provide them with their constitutional rights. Best way to ensure an innocent person is not railroaded is to provide them with their constitutional rights.
    Best way to provide competent representation is to pay the going rate to those who are representing those folks. How much are the prosecutors being paid?

    • QuietBlue

      It also doesn’t help when most people in the county (or state) aren’t making anywhere near $40 an hour, so they wonder why attorneys need that much money (even though that’s not much as attorney pay goes).

      • RBHolb

        It’s not much as anyone’s pay goes. The $40 does not all go to the attorney. A rule of thumb I remember from many years ago is that half of the fees an attorney collects will go towards overhead (office rent, support staff, etc.). Assuming an attorney can bill 40 hours per week (a feat which would require her to work 50-60 hours per week), that’s a gross pay of $800 per week.

        • QuietBlue

          That certainly puts it in perspective; I wasn’t taking that into consideration.

  • Ickster

    Seems impossible to justify paying PDs less than prosecutors are paid.