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Scales of Justice

Six years ago this month, the La Crosse Tribune editorial board wrote about problems caused by low pay set by the state to reimburse private attorneys representing indigent clients in our criminal justice system.

The problems mean fewer and fewer attorneys — especially outside of Milwaukee and Madison — think they can afford to take on such cases, which delays representation for people who have been charged with a crime.

That means more people sit in jail for a longer time — costing all of us nearly $100 per inmate per day.

Justice delayed serves no one. It doesn’t serve victims to allow criminal cases to grow cold. Delaying justice infringes on the rights of the accused. It complicates the lives of those we pay to prosecute, defend and judge. And it costs taxpayers money.

What has happened in the past six years to fix the problem? Absolutely nothing.

As Tribune reporter Basma Amer points out in a recent story, while the Wisconsin Supreme Court agrees that raising the reimbursement rate is a good idea, the court doesn’t pay the bill.

The Legislature does.

And it’s time the Legislature get moving on raising the rate.

When the state public defender office was established in 1978, the reimbursement rate was $50.

In 1995, the rate was changed … to $40 an hour.

We’re 50th in the United States for such reimbursement — not something to be proud of.

It just doesn’t make sense.

The office handles 140,000 cases a year throughout Wisconsin’s 72 counties.

Here’s how we began our editorial six years ago:

As recent political debates have demonstrated in Wisconsin and nationwide, the court system may be the most misunderstood and underappreciated branch of government.

And when it comes to the court system, possibly the most misunderstood and underappreciated function is the public defender’s office.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that receiving legal help is a fundamental right of the accused and a key tenet of a fair trial. Of course, not every person accused has the means to hire legal help.

Dale Pasell, a former La Crosse County Circuit Court judge and public defender, points out that a criminal case can go cold when justice is delayed. And a defendant can lose employment, which benefits no one.

This problem needs to get fixed. Ignoring the problem doesn’t save money or enhance criminal justice.

For the sake of justice, raise the rate.

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