Milwaukee public defender shortage, postponed cases, you foot the bill

A shortage of attorneys doing public defense work has Milwaukee taxpayers sharing the cost. 

It took two months to find an attorney for the sisters accused of shooting a Wauwatosa George Webb worker. 

On Monday, April 11, a hearing for Allen Addison Jr., accused in a Milwaukee shooting was postponed. Addison Jr. is the brother of Milwaukee Mayor-Elect Cavalier Johnson.

 Allen Addison Jr.

The two cases highlight an ongoing problem that impacts your tax dollars.

Milwaukee County Court Commissioner Barry Phillips recorded a speech about the inability to find attorneys for defendants. He's been playing it in court since March.

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Bryanna Johnson, Breanta Johnson

The issue came up again Monday morning. Breanta and Bryanna Johnson are both accused of shooting and hurting a Wauwatosa George Webb employee in January.

"Found to be eligible for representation by the office of the state public defender and case was set for preliminary hearing on Feb. 15," said Judge David Feiss.

But it was postponed and rescheduled four times leading up to Monday.

"I’m going to appoint a lawyer to you at county expense," said Feiss.

Milwaukee County Court Commissioner Barry Phillips

Feiss appointed two private attorneys to take on the sister's cases, noting it's already costing taxpayers and the sisters to remain in custody without moving the case forward.

"We have a shortage of lawyers, especially lawyers who are capable of taking our most serious cases," said Thomas Reed, regional attorney manager, Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office.  

Reed says caseloads are steady, but the cases themselves are getting more serious. That takes more time, as does recruiting attorneys.

"I think the supply of lawyers capable of doing this work has just dropped off," said Reed. "It will probably resume or recover, but it hasn’t quickly and that’s why we’re in this predicament."

So what can be done? One avenue discussed in court was using federal American Rescue Plan funds to help hire additional attorneys. Right now, private attorneys doing public defense work can charge $70  per hour. Those appointed by judges can make $100 per hour or more.

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