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Prioritizing public safety

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J.B. Van Hollen
February 5, 2010

I believe that public safety is the first priority of state and local government. This means having laws that protect residents from those who would deprive us of our life, liberty, property and ability to pursue happiness. And it means having people to enforce those laws.


Prosecutors are front-line public safety personnel. District attorneys and their assistants are responsible for evaluating, charging and prosecuting nearly all state criminal actions. Often, they also play critical roles in investigating complex crime. Homicides, drug trafficking, fraud, sexual assault, domestic violence. None of these crimes would be enforced—and justice cannot be served—without a prosecutor evaluating evidence, appropriately charging defendants, and competently and fairly trying cases.


In 2007, a Legislative Audit Bureau report concluded, based on a caseload analysis, that state prosecutor offices were 117 assistant district attorneys short. Since then, no serious move has been made to address the shortage. Instead, there have only been new responsibilities added on district attorneys by expanding criminal laws, such as the recently passed OWI bill; a bill that makes a number of positive policy changes, but fails to fully fund those changes.


Law enforcement and prosecutors I’ve met with throughout the state describe the prosecutor shortage as a serious threat to the criminal justice system. The effects of the shortage can include delayed or less thorough review of complaints, increased incentives to plea and avoid trial, an inability to prosecute all meritorious cases, and an inability to devote the individualized attention to certain cases as justice ideally requires.


In addition, the shortage has contributed to high turnover, and as less experienced prosecutors replace those who have left, the problems are intensified.


That’s why the recent news that the state prosecutors have received a layoff notice from the Department of Administration is deeply troubling. Layoffs will only further exacerbate the negative effects of a prosecutor shortage that threatens the state’s ability to enforce criminal laws and do justice.


These layoffs are the result of a failure to budget according to priorities—or a failure to prioritize public safety.


According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the two-year budget passed last summer increased state spending by 6.2 percent over fiscal year 2008 levels. The district attorneys’ budget was cut by 8.1 percent. That’s not prioritizing core government functions.


I believe that all government agencies, public safety or otherwise, should do what they can to become more efficient while maintaining effectiveness—as we’ve done at the Department of Justice.


I agree with many who argue that government is too big and does too much. But all government is not of equal priority. Government cuts should start at government’s excesses, not at its core.


J.B. Van Hollen is Wisconsin’s elected attorney general. Readers can reach him by phone at (608) 266-1221 or by mail at Room 114 East, state Capitol, Madison, WI 53702.


I believe that public safety is the first priority of state and local government. This means having laws that protect residents from those who would deprive us of our life, liberty, property and ability to pursue happiness. And it means having people to enforce those laws.


Prosecutors are front-line public safety personnel. District attorneys and their assistants are responsible for evaluating, charging and prosecuting nearly all state criminal actions. Often, they also play critical roles in investigating complex crime. Homicides, drug trafficking, fraud, sexual assault, domestic violence. None of these crimes would be enforced—and justice cannot be served—without a prosecutor evaluating evidence, appropriately charging defendants, and competently and fairly trying cases.


In 2007, a Legislative Audit Bureau report concluded, based on a caseload analysis, that state prosecutor offices were 117 assistant district attorneys short. Since then, no serious move has been made to address the shortage. Instead, there have only been new responsibilities added on district attorneys by expanding criminal laws, such as the recently passed OWI bill; a bill that makes a number of positive policy changes, but fails to fully fund those changes.


Law enforcement and prosecutors I’ve met with throughout the state describe the prosecutor shortage as a serious threat to the criminal justice system. The effects of the shortage can include delayed or less thorough review of complaints, increased incentives to plea and avoid trial, an inability to prosecute all meritorious cases, and an inability to devote the individualized attention to certain cases as justice ideally requires.


In addition, the shortage has contributed to high turnover, and as less experienced prosecutors replace those who have left, the problems are intensified.


That’s why the recent news that the state prosecutors have received a layoff notice from the Department of Administration is deeply troubling. Layoffs will only further exacerbate the negative effects of a prosecutor shortage that threatens the state’s ability to enforce criminal laws and do justice.


These layoffs are the result of a failure to budget according to priorities—or a failure to prioritize public safety.


According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the two-year budget passed last summer increased state spending by 6.2 percent over fiscal year 2008 levels. The district attorneys’ budget was cut by 8.1 percent. That’s not prioritizing core government functions.


I believe that all government agencies, public safety or otherwise, should do what they can to become more efficient while maintaining effectiveness—as we’ve done at the Department of Justice.


I agree with many who argue that government is too big and does too much. But all government is not of equal priority. Government cuts should start at government’s excesses, not at its core.


J.B. Van Hollen is Wisconsin’s elected attorney general. Readers can reach him by phone at (608) 266-1221 or by mail at Room 114 East, state Capitol, Madison, WI 53702.

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