Pubdate: Thu, 02 Aug 2007
Source: Portage Daily Register (WI)
Copyright: 2007 Portage Daily Register
Author: Todd Krysiak
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


Internet crimes, the advent of methamphetamine, the use of DNA 
analysis and surveillance systems and other changes in law and 
society have led to more work for Wisconsin's prosecutors, the 
district attorneys in Columbia and Marquette counties say, but the 
number of assistant district attorneys in the state has not increased 

Columbia County District Attorney Jane Kohlwey said her office 
doesn't have the staff it needs to prosecute offenders under new laws 
and sentencing guidelines enacted by the state Legislature, adding 
that while caseloads haven't changed much since 1993, the severity of 
crimes and potential sentences have risen dramatically.

Her claims are supported by a Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau 
report released last month. It found that prosecutors' offices 
statewide were short 117 full-time assistant district attorney 
positions. The report also discovered that turnover among assistant 
district attorneys is high because of low pay when compared with the 
private sector.

Marquette County District Attorney Richard DuFour, who also serves as 
Wisconsin District Attorneys Association secretary-treasurer, said he 
wasn't surprised.

"We've known for a long time that DA's offices were severely 
understaffed across the state," he said. "Frankly, what we see there 
mirrors a lot of concerns we've had for some time."

A Local Impact

DuFour said he hopes the report will spur the Legislature to fill the 
gaps, which directly affect his office.

The report placed Marquette County at No. 8 in percentage of staffing 
needed to bridge the gap, according to its formula. The formula 
determined the number of prosecutors needed by dividing the total 
number of hours required each year to prosecute cases in the county 
by the 1,227 hours available per full-time prosecutor and then 
compared the findings with the actual number of prosecutors.

The report found that Marquette County's District Attorney's Office 
is staffed at about 62 percent of the optimum level.

DuFour is the only prosecutor in an office that the report found 
needs 1.66 employees.

"Do we see the problem here? Yeah," he said. "I have to prioritize 
the cases I look at and sometimes I can't do something that needs to be done."

Kohlwey said her office needs another full-time assistant district 
attorney as well as a part-time position. She said she's lost half of 
a position over the last few years.

"We have about the same number of felony cases as we did five years 
ago, but the severity has increased," she said. "Juvenile delinquent 
cases also have gone up 50 percent."

Kohlwey's office has four full-time attorneys and one part-time 
assistant district attorney who are handling 1,671 open criminal 
cases. The report found the Columbia County District Attorney's 
Office was staffed at about 70 percent of its optimum level.

The report found Burnette County had the greatest need for additional 
prosecutors and was staffed at less than 45 percent of the optimum level.

Kohlwey pointed to the introduction of the Len Bias law and an 
increase in homicide cases as examples of recent changes that require 
significantly more amounts of time for her and her staff, as well as 
other district attorneys across the state. The Len Bias law allows 
states to charge suppliers of illegal drugs with homicide if a user 
overdoses and dies as a result.

The issue can raise questions about public safety, Kohlwey said, 
because as cases become backlogged, charges may not be filed and 
defendants can be released into the public before a bond hearing is held.

She also said that some of the most serious, high-profile cases 
should have two prosecutors working them as a team, but staff 
shortages prevent her from assigning a team to a case.

"That's not how the defense attorneys approach these cases," she said.

An Alternative Solution?

While area district attorneys point to the findings in the report, a 
former Columbia County assistant district attorney and private 
defense attorney questioned the need for additional prosecutors in 
Columbia County.

Portage attorney Steven Sarbacker worked as an assistant district 
attorney for seven years in Columbia County and said prioritization 
could be used more effectively to reduce the caseload in the office.

"They have the discretion to lessen the load," he said. "Hiring is 
not always the answer."

Sarbacker conceded there were district attorney's offices in the 
state that needed additional staff, and said he recognized Marquette 
County needed more help.

"I don't know how Dick does it," he said. "One attorney for that 
office isn't enough."

Sarbacker pointed to changes in how cases such as operating with a 
revoked driver's license and marijuana cases are handled in Dane 
County as an example of prioritization.

"The DA there said, 'We're not going to make it criminal to have a 
certain amount of pot or bring these drivers into court over and 
over,'" he said. "There, it's a ticket. Here, it's criminal."

Sarbacker said he understands that the Legislature continues to pass 
more stringent laws that can tie prosecutors' hands, but worries that 
adding staff could lead to more aggressive -- and potentially 
unnecessary -- prosecutions.

"Naturally, when you're hiring DA's, you're hiring young people right 
out of law school," he said. "They typically are aggressive, 
idealistic and want to make a name for themselves."

Sarbacker said that because these young attorneys aren't experienced, 
they don't get the high-profile cases and instead focus on 
aggressively pursuing the less severe crimes.

"Why should a person in Madison get a ticket when here they get a 
conviction and a criminal record or denial of a student loan?" he 
said. "Are we trying to create a whole new class of people?"

More Arrests

Sarbacker said he doesn't believe the Columbia County District 
Attorney's Office is too aggressive in its prosecutions today, but 
expressed concern about the direction in which the legal community is headed.

"You can't single out the DA's office. I mean, just look at the 
increase in police officers around the county in the last 10 years," 
he said. "If you increase police and district attorneys, then pretty 
soon you're adding judges."

He said increases in law enforcement naturally lead to more criminal arrests.

The LAB report took increases in police forces into consideration and 
found that Columbia County ranked 15th in the state for the largest 
percentage increase in officers with a 6.7 percent rise between 2001 and 2005.

While Sarbacker looked at the effects more police and prosecutors 
could have on the judicial system, Kohlwey said a shortage of 
prosecutors can have a similar negative effect on the court system.

"The judicial process can slow sometimes when our office is bogged 
down because it's difficult to schedule cases when attorneys aren't 
always available," she said. "We also see some people getting lighter 
sentences than they might if we had the chance to fully prosecute."

For WDAA board member and Ozaukee County Assistant District Attorney 
Adam Gerol, the shortage is a public safety issue.

"The safety of the entire public suffers when prosecutors can't do 
their jobs well and the very best police work is useless if we don't 
have enough adequately trained and experienced prosecutors to make 
good arrests stick in court," he stated in a press release.
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