As the Wisconsin Legislature takes up the 2019-2021 budget this week, Douglas County District Attorney Mark Fruehauf will be watching the process closely.
One of the provisions that passed the Joint Finance Committee would increase the number of assistant district attorney positions in the state, including an extra half-time position, or 0.5 FTE, for Douglas County. If it passes, the move won’t bring any new faces to the District Attorney’s Office, but it would increase the amount of time current ADAs spend on the job.
“It’s going to promote public safety here,” Fruehauf said. “It’s going to allow me to have a better chance of keeping the ADAs I have, to actually attract more qualified candidates when I do have openings that come up and, just from a practical perspective, allow us to get more done in the office.”
Douglas County has one full-time district attorney and 2.5 ADAs. Jennifer Bork is the only full-time ADA. Anne Teirrien is slightly over half-time at 0.6 FTE, and Fruehauf’s newest hire, Angela Wilson, is just shy of full-time at 0.9 FTE. The additional 0.5 FTE currently in the budget would bring both part-time ADAs to full time.
It would be a step in the right direction. Based on an analysis of the office’s 2015-17 workload by the State Prosecutor’s Office, Fruehauf said, Douglas County should have another 3.73 ADA positions to run at full efficiency. But that would bring with it additional issues, like the need for an additional judge.
A 2 percent increase to pay for both ADAs and public defenders is also in the budget at this point.
Since taking office in 2017, Fruehauf has hired two ADAs. The most recent, Angela Wilson, brought 20 years of prosecutorial experience with her from Kansas. Her resume includes taking the lead in prosecuting the high-profile 2005 murder trial of Thomas Murray. She has been a gift, the district attorney said.
“She relocated here because of family and we’ve been better off having her here,” Fruehauf said.
With the proposed position increase and the bump to pay, he said, the office would have a better chance at keeping high-caliber people around and tackling more cases, individually.
“A case isn’t just a number here,” Fruehauf said.
Wilson said she appreciates Wisconsin's less rigid sentencing guidelines.
“You have to have the time to dig into the cases to make the best decisions,” she said. “When you have to go fast because you don’t have enough resources, you can’t be as confident that you’re making the best decision. That’s just the reality of it.”
Another provision in the state budget would bump the hourly pay for private attorneys who serve as public defenders for criminal defendants from $40 to $70 effective Jan. 1, 2020. At $40, Wisconsin’s reimbursement rate for those private attorneys is the lowest in the country. That can translate into court delays.
Fruehauf said in one pending Douglas County case, the public defender’s office contacted 86 private attorneys before finding someone to represent the defendant.
“They finally got one, but he’s from La Crosse,” Fruehauf said.
The Wisconsin Assembly is set to vote on the budget Tuesday, June 25. The Senate could take up the budget later in the week.