Digging Deeper: Crushing Caseload - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Digging Deeper: Crushing Caseload

Barron County handles 2,000 cases a year Barron County handles 2,000 cases a year
64 our of 71 Wisconsin counties operate below the national staffing model 64 our of 71 Wisconsin counties operate below the national staffing model
Meth possession in Barron County is up 600% since 2010 Meth possession in Barron County is up 600% since 2010
State lawmakers have not improved a staffing increase in two decades State lawmakers have not improved a staffing increase in two decades

(WQOW) -- For our criminal justice system to work, three institutions need to work together. Law enforcement investigates and gathers evidence,. the courts prove guilt and levy punishment, and the Department of Corrections enforces the sentence. But in Wisconsin, one of those branches is doing a lot more with a lot less. 

A state report says Wisconsin needs 150 more attorneys to prosecute criminals -- just to keep up with an exploding number of cases. Some call it a public safety crisis, fueled in part by drugs.

"Every area of the criminal justice system that is designed to keep the public safe has increased in the last 13 years -- except prosecutors," says Barron County District Attorney Angela Beranek.

The last change for prosecutors in Wisconsin came in 2003, when 15 positions were eliminated. The 2016 Wisconsin State Workload Study shows that right now -- 64 out of 71 district attorney offices are operating well below the national model of one prosecutor for every 10,000 residents. Twelve, including Dunn County and Barron County, are working with 50-percent of the needed staff or below.

 "It definitely results in us having less time to spend on cases," says Beranek.

But less help has not led to fewer cases. Barron County deals with 2,000 cases per year with just three prosecutors on staff. The caseload has surged as the number of methamphetamine cases has skyrocketed -- up 600-percent since 2010.

"With just the volume, things can fall through the cracks. It's hard to keep track of 800 cases and where each of them is in the system," says Beranek.

The problem is exacerbated by low prosecutor pay, starting at $49,000 a year. That salary, coupled with the stress of the job, leads to a lot of turnover.

"You know, coming out of law school and making $50,000 as an Assistant District Attorney is not a fair wage for the amount of schooling, the specialization, and the amount of work that we handle," says Beranek. "Every other prosecutor has been here for three or four at the most. And then they move on to something else. We have definitely seen a turnover in the Assistant District Attorney positions."

Those that do take the job are expected to hit the ground running. They will appear in court their very first day, with very little oversight, because there simply isn't time for training wheels.

"Each one of us has to take a full caseload from day one. That means you're going into court, handling cases by yourself with very little supervision." says Beranek. "I handle about 800 cases a year. That's an enormous amount of cases for a prosecutor. If I could only handle 600 cases a year, what a luxury that would be." 

The crushing caseload forces prosecutors to treat each case like a mathematical equation. How many prior crimes has the accused committed? How long would a trial take? What are the chances they would be found guilty by a group of their peers?

"There is an amount of triage where we are just trying to get the cases in and do the very best that we can," says Beranek. 

Where home runs can not be hit, deals must be made.

"Plea agreements, everyone thinks that's a bad word, but with 2,000 cases a year, we couldn't afford to take every one of those cases to trial," adds Beranek.

That is why state prosecutors are requesting 100 more positions, at a cost of $7 million, in the next biennial budget. Wisconsin has not approved an increase in two decades, and Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) says that's not likely to change. 

"Everyone's trying to be fiscally responsible and everyone is trying to be tough on crime. Well, it's time for people to be adults," says Rep. Dana Wachs (D-Eau Claire).

State Representative Dana Wachs is also a practicing attorney. He says the need for more prosecutors is not a new revelation in Madison, yet his colleagues are doing little to address the issue.

"We all believe in having an orderly society. We all believe in having people adhering to the law. And if we really want people to adhere to the law, both Democrats and Republicans need to take heed that we need more prosecutors. There is no question about it," says Rep. Wachs.

Some state legislators have expressed concern about giving district attorney offices a blank check. They would rather see any new money earmarked for rehabilitation programs like diversion courts, meant to keep low-level offenders out of jail.

"You get that substance abuse issue addressed and fixed, you're going to have less crime," says Rep. Wachs.

Beranek says Barron County has seen success with its program -- when they have time to devote to it.

 "Without a strong prosecutors office to take the time and spend the energy, you're not going to have a successful diversion court program," says Beranek.

Lawmakers have also expressed fears that more prosecutors will lead to more people in Wisconsin's prisons. But Beranek disagrees, saying prosecutors will simply have more time to do their jobs.

 "All of our prosecutors work extra time. Nights, weekends, we're taking files home and reviewing them before tomorrow's court hearings. We're doing a lot of extra work outside the normal court day because we don't have time during the day to do that," says Beranek. "I think if you have an adequate number of prosecutors, the whole criminal justice system is going to be better."

Gov. Walker told News 18 that he is committed to helping prosecutors in the next budget. But instead of additional staff, he's pushing to bring back pay progression.

 "We've worked with the Attorney General on this. So, the starting level of pay goes up so that prosecutors can keep more of the top talent that they have. It's something that we've committed to and will be part of our next state budget," says Gov. Walker.

Specifics on the Governor's plan will have to wait until the budget is announced. Still, there is a fear that the plan will simply serve as a band aid where surgery is needed.

"Along the lines, we have kind of felt that we have been kicked in the gut a couple hundred times, but we still keep fighting the good fight," says Beranek.

"Pretty soon you're not going to have any prosecutors," adds Rep. Wachs. "People are going to say 'well I'm not doing that'. And then where are we going to be at?"

It's not just drugs that are causing an explosive growth in criminal cases. Things like DNA testing and other new, specialized techniques extend the time it takes to prosecute cases. Also, unlike private attorneys, prosecutors have limited control over the cases they take because they have to review whatever is brought to them by law enforcement.

Prosecutors will hear a verdict on exactly what help is coming their way on February 8, when Gov. Walker unveils the state biennial budget.

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