Gov. Evers signs bill boosting pay for state public defenders

Gov. Tony Evers

Gov. Tony Evers on Monday signed into law a bipartisan bill that will boost pay for state public defenders at a time when the office has lost dozens of employees in the face of stagnant wages.

The bill allows for merit-based pay raises higher than the standard 10% increases. The public defender's office will be able to offer raises higher than 10% only for the upcoming fiscal year, using savings from the past year when the office lost 78 staff members.

Many of them left for higher paid jobs in government or the private sector, state Public Defender Kelli Thompson said in written testimony for the bill's public hearing last month.

For too long, public defenders have had to do more with less, Evers said at a virtual signing ceremony.

"We can’t make the robust, critical changes needed to reform our criminal justice system in Wisconsin if our public defenders are overworked, understaffed, and undervalued," Evers said.

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Thompson said at the signing ceremony that the new law will allow the public defender's office to compete with others seeking to hire its attorneys. Thompson has been the head of Wisconsin's public defenders since 2011.

The bill passed the Legislature on bipartisan voice votes. It is supported by the State Bar of Wisconsin, Wisconsin District Attorneys' Association, Association of State Prosecutors and the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.

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