DAs face possible assistant layoffsIt’s a waiting game in the Douglas County. Layoff threats have prosecutors on the edge of their seats.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
It’s a waiting game in the Douglas County. Layoff threats have prosecutors on the edge of their seats.
In light of the state’s budget crunch, an unspecified number of assistant district attorneys face layoffs. Neither they nor their elected bosses know which counties could be affected or when. They do know the layoffs would hurt offices already straining to keep up with caseloads.
“We’ve got two vulnerable positions,” said District Attorney Dan Blank. With two full-time and one part-time position, Douglas County has the highest number of assistants in the northwest corner of the state. Bayfield County District Attorney Craig Haukaas doesn’t have an assistant. Ashland, Burnett, Sawyer and Washburn counties each have one, according to their Websites.
One of Douglas County’s full-time prosecutors, Lance Nelsen, is still in his probationary period, putting him at jeopardy if the cuts go in order of seniority. The half-time position, currently held by Rebecca Lovejoy, was added in 1993, but could also be targeted. Or the cuts could come out of more populous southern region offices.
“We just don’t know,” Blank said.
Monday, Sheboygan County District Attorney Joe DeCecco announced that his office has made a contingency plan: It would no longer prosecute several types of misdemeanors – including disorderly conduct, criminal damage to property under $2,500, possession of marijuana, possession of marijuana paraphernalia and theft under $2,500 – if the office loses one of six full-time assistants. Blank hasn’t gone that far, but said the office would have to make the same kind of tough decision if a position was lost. While focusing on the more serious cases, he said, some misdemeanor violations could be shelved without prosecution.
“We always have to pick and choose,” said Assistant District Attorney Jim Boughner, who has been with the Douglas County office for 21 years. “This is just going to cut it back.”
When Boughner started, assistants were county employees while public defenders were state employees. Public defenders would make a career out of it, Boughner said, but prosecutors would stay for a few years to get courtroom experience and move on to private practice. ADAs became state employees in 1990 to level the playing field, and for a while they received regular pay raises. But in the early 2000s, pay progression stopped, which led to a turnover rate of nearly 50 percent for assistants, Boughner said, losing valuable experience.
The state Legislative Audit Bureau reported a couple of years ago that Wisconsin needed more than 100 more prosecutors to handle growing caseloads, including five in Sheboygan County.
“Now we’re talking about furloughs, talking about layoffs,” Boughner said.
Meanwhile, the Legislature continues to pass new laws and complicated new crimes such as identity theft and Internet sex crimes have cropped up. The Legislature recently toughened drunk driving statutes and a bill targeting texting while driving is being considered.
The current standoff came as a result of the assistant prosecutors’ contract, which set the maximum furlough days they could accept at five, three less than the eight Gov. Jim Doyle’s budget called for most state employees to take. To make up for those other three days, and a 1 percent across-the-board budget cut and a 2 percent pay increase for those still employed, some prosecutors will be laid off, according to a Dec. 30 notice sent to Association of State Prosecutors, which represents 424 assistant district attorneys.
In 2009, the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office prosecuted 1,048 criminal cases – 451 misdemeanors, 302 felonies and 295 traffic – as well as 142 juvenile cases. They also provided 2,399 information referrals for law enforcement and other agencies.
If the solution is three extra furlough days, it won’t disrupt the office too much. But the effect of a permanent layoff would be “dramatic,” Blank said.
“We’re a small group. We try to represent the public and victims of crime,” Boughner said. “We want to be able to do our jobs.”
Prosecutors understand that budgets are tight and everyone has to cut back. But, Nelsen said, dollars should be weighted based on the service provided. If a victim of a crime goes without restitution, he said, is that the equivalent of not filling in a pothole?
“You get the justice system you’re willing to pay for,” Nelsen said.
Bruce Vielmetti of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.