JEFFERSON — Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ is pleased that her staff will be growing, albeit slightly, for the first time in nearly three decades.
Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday announced the creation of 64.9 new assistant district attorney positions statewide, including a 0.7-full-time equivalency position in Jefferson County.
The addition rounds up the number of prosecutors on Happ’s staff to six, including Happ. It also marks the first staff increase Happ can remember since prosecutors became state employees in 1990.
“I’m super-excited about it,” Happ said Tuesday. “It’s a good example of bipartisan politics as both a Democratic governor and a Republican Legislature supported it.”
Evers called the nearly 65 positions added in 57 counties this “biggest state investment in the district attorney program in the state's history.
“For far too long, our county district attorney offices have been doing more with less," the governor said. "This historic investment will enable our county officials to improve victims services, enhance diversion and treatment options for those struggling with substance use disorders, and address backlogs that are standing in the way of justice.
“District attorneys are on the front line of the criminal justice system, and we can't make the critical changes needed to reform our criminal justice system in Wisconsin if our county district attorney offices are overworked and understaffed,” Evers said in a prepared statement.
At 28 hours a week, the new position in Jefferson County comes with benefits and could be an attractive job to an attorney winding down his or her practice or a new law student graduate, Happ said.
Like other district attorneys around the state, Happ has been requesting additional assistants with every two-year state budget as caseloads increase. However, staffing has remained the same. Even programs like Drug Treatment Court, Alcohol Treatment Court and First-Offender diversion programs, meant to give offenders an alternative to the conventional justice system, take attorney time, Happ pointed out.
“It will also give us much-needed caseload relief and will improve our court diversion options and charging decisions, she said.
Prosecutors spend about 40 hours a month just preparing for Drug Court, which is in addition to actual time spent in the courtroom, Happ said.
The new prosecutor can be hired as early as next month, and in Jefferson County, he or she will be someone who can handle a variety of cases, she said.
“We have some areas of specialty, but just about all of the attorneys handle just about every kind of case. There are two juvenile prosecutors and my 0.3-FTE (employee) is in court, not but assigned to cases,” she said.
The Legislature approved 60.85 new assistant district attorney positions when it passed the 2019-21 state budget. Evers vetoed the budget and asked the secretary of the Department of Administration to recommend a new staffing level, which was the 64.95 position that Evers announced Tuesday.
The adjustment did not change the position amount for Jefferson County.
The state budget also included $1.6 million to pay raises for assistant district attorneys statewide this year and another $1.6 million next year, which amounts to about a $2.09 per hour increase, according to Tia Torhorst, spokesperson for the Department of Administration.
Each of the past two biennial budgets have increased the assistants' pay. Starting annual salaries for assistant district attorneys now approach $50,000.
Public defenders in private practice also received a pay raise in the state budget from $49 to $70 per hour, a move supported by many justice associations, Happ said.
The pool of defense attorneys willing to travel and work at $49 per hour impacts the pace of courts in northern and rural Wisconsin and, fortunately, had little local effect, Happ said.
There usually are enough local defense attorneys to provide representation in Jefferson County courts, and when pinched, attorneys in adjoining Dane and Waukesha counties are available to be assigned, she noted.