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Wisconsin's low compensation rate for public defenders prompts federal lawsuit

A class-action lawsuit is being brought in federal court by five men and one woman who say their rights to an attorney and a speedy trial are being violated, alleging they've had to sit in jail for long stretches of time.

The complaint was filed Jan. 11 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin on behalf of Joseph W. Bender, Jeremy W. Stroebel, Thomas G. White, Jr., Tyler S. Holman, Tyler J. Hood, and Chelsea N. Cadotte.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees poor clients the right to effective representation under the U.S. Constitution.

However, Ashland attorney Craig Haukaas, who is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said his clients had to sit in jail anywhere from 21 to 75 days before a lawyer would take their case. Haukaas said northern and rural Wisconsin are facing a constitutional crisis.

"The state has the job to prosecute cases. But the state also has the obligation to provide them with legal representation if they're indigent," Haukaas said. "The failure to do so is just a violation of the constitution. They're being denied their rights."

Haukaas said most attorneys can't afford to take on cases from the Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office at the $40-per-hour compensation rate, which WPR previously reported is the lowest in the nation.

Randy Kraft, a spokesman with the Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office, provided the following statement:

"The Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office (SPD) is aware of the federal court filing related to the nation's lowest rate of compensation paid to assigned counsel attorneys who accept SPD cases. We are currently reviewing the filing in detail, and will withhold further comment until that process is complete. "

According to the complaint, 73 percent of state public defender appointments go to private attorneys from other counties in Ashland County. The complaint states the problem has been made worse by the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision to raise the compensation rate for court-appointed attorneys last year.

"The problem that these people are facing is that if they had counsel, they could apply for a bail reduction. They could apply for a speedy trial. They could apply for moving their case forward, asking for hearings to have the charges brought before a judge for either a preliminary hearing or trial," Haukass said. "The average person who's charged with an offense doesn't know the legal system. That's what attorneys are for."

Haukaas said something needs to be done to ensure indigent defendants have attorneys whether it's raising the rates or hiring more public defenders in the state.