State may cover debt from law school

Bill to help lawyers who rep­re­sent poor de­fen­dants from ru­ral, small coun­ties

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - MILWAUKEE WISCONSIN - Bruce Viel­metti

The state would pay off law school loans — up to $20,000 a year — for lawyers who agree to rep­re­sent poor de­fen­dants in ru­ral coun­ties, un­der a pro­posed bill.

Back­ers think the $500,000, twoyear pi­lot pro­gram would of­fer enough in­cen­tive for new lawyers to move to Wis­con­sin’s small coun­ties, or coax lawyers al­ready prac­tic­ing in those ar­eas to start ac­cept­ing the cases.

“Judges are mak­ing us very aware, this is an is­sue,” State Pub­lic De­fender Kelli Thomp­son said. “It’s kind of all hands on deck.”

She said it some­times has taken 100 phone calls to find a lawyer for an in­di­gent de­fen­dant, and some of those lawyers are trav­el­ing three and four, some­times up to five hours to see those clients.

“It’s a strug­gle,” Thomp­son said. The loan re­pay­ment of­fer amounts to a small side-step around the real prob­lem: Wis­con­sin’s low­est-in-the-na­tion pay­ments to pri­vate at­tor­neys who take on cases the State Pub­lic De­fender Of­fice can’t.

That $40 an hour rate hasn’t risen since 1992, and ex­pe­ri­enced lawyers say it doesn’t even cover their over­head costs. As a re­sult, many de­cline the cases or only take one or two a year out of a sense of pro­fes­sional duty.

Re­peated ef­forts by the State Bar of Wis­con­sin and the State Pub­lic De­fend­ers Of­fice to get the Supreme Court or the Leg­is­la­ture to raise the rate have failed.

For a qual­i­fy­ing lawyer with tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in law school debt, the re­lief would ef­fec­tively raise that $40, but the ques­tion is whether it would be enough to draw lawyers to places like Hur­ley, Rhinelander or Cran­don.

Daniel Berkos chairs the State Pub­lic De­fender board and is the only lawyer in Juneau County who takes ap­point­ments. Most come from Madi­son, La Crosse or Bara­boo, he said.

“Peo­ple in their 20s and 30s gen­er­ally aren’t in­ter­ested in mov­ing to ru­ral ar­eas,” he said. “We need to ap­point lawyers al­ready there.”

But if they’ve long paid off their loans, they wouldn’t qual­ify for the new in­cen­tive.

Tyler Wick­man runs a small gen­eral

law prac­tice in Ash­land. He said when he started out, he took ap­point­ments, but now doesn’t take any be­cause he’d lose money.

But he sees the prob­lem cre­ated by lack of coun­sel.

“It cre­ates a much a larger bur­den on the sys­tem than peo­ple re­al­ize,” he said. “It spi­rals and costs more in law en­force­ment pros­e­cu­tion, court time and jails.”

Many of the crim­i­nal cases Up North in­volve metham­phetamine and opioid use, he said. A lawyer can help a de­fen­dant find and get treat­ment, hound them about mak­ing court dates, and do other steps to­ward an ef­fi­cient, just res­o­lu­tion.

“That’s all a lot harder if the lawyer is from 100 miles away,” and not see­ing the client within the first day or two of their ar­rest.

Wick­man said in one ex­treme case, a judge agreed to have the county pay him $100 an hour to rep­re­sent some­one who had spent more than 500 days in pre-trial de­ten­tion.

The bill would re­quire qual­i­fy­ing lawyers to ei­ther main­tain their of­fice in a county with fewer than 25,000 res­i­dents or show that the ma­jor­ity of their le­gal work is done in such coun­ties. Twenty-six Wis­con­sin coun­ties meet the cri­te­ria.

The State Pub­lic De­fender, based in Madi­son with 36 lo­cal of­fices, han­dles most in­di­gent crim­i­nal de­fense cases but must farm out con­flicts and over­flows. It spends more than $2 mil­lion a month pay­ing pri­vate at­tor­neys — who must be cer­ti­fied by the SPD — to take on about 57,000 such cases a year.

One of the bill’s spon­sors, Rep. Ron Tusler (R-Har­ri­son), runs his own gen­eral law prac­tice based in Ap­ple­ton. He said he took lots of Pub­lic De­fender ap­point­ments when he started out, to get ex­pe­ri­ence and pay the bills, but hasn’t taken any in three years.

“I have ev­ery ex­pec­ta­tion it will pass the As­sem­bly this ses­sion,” he said. “I don’t see why wouldn’t. It’s fi­nan­cially bet­ter for the state, helps folks stay in ru­ral ar­eas and it’s more ef­fi­cient.”

Co-spon­sor Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) is not a lawyer but said he hears a lot about law school debt.

“The vast ma­jor­ity (of new lawyers) think the only way to make enough to pay off debt is to work” in Milwaukee, Madi­son or Green Bay.

“That’s been the big­gest strug­gle in ru­ral ar­eas — mas­sive out-mi­gra­tion for 50 years,” Testin said. “Our ar­eas have a lot to of­fer — great places to live, work and raise fam­i­lies. We just need peo­ple to come and try it.”

Bay­field County Cir­cuit Judge John An­der­son isn’t sure loan pay­offs is the an­swer but is “happy the Leg­is­la­ture is at least talk­ing some­thing” re­lated to the prob­lem.

“I’m not aware of any civil rights claims yet, but am con­cerned we’re get­ting close to that with a few cases,” be­cause, he stressed, a de­fen­dant’s right to coun­sel “doesn’t go away just be­cause there aren’t enough lawyers.”

“Our ar­eas have a lot to of­fer — great places to live, work and raise fam­i­lies.” Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point)

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