State finds Rock County short on assistant district attorneys
JANESVILLE A state-funded analysis indicates that the Rock County District Attorney's Office should have nearly nine more prosecutors to handle its caseload.
The county's need for prosecutors is sixth greatest in the state, according to a report from a Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau's 2007 report.
Rock County should have 8.86 more attorneys in its DA's office, according to the report. That would be a 60 percent increase from the current 14 attorneys, including the district attorney.
Only five of Wisconsin's 72 counties are short more attorneys than Rock County, according to the report. Many across the state have a bigger shortage by percentage than Rock County. The percentages vary from a 17 percent decrease recommended in Vernon County to a 155 percent increase recommended in Monroe County.
A previous study recommended an increase of five attorneys for Rock County, District Attorney David O'Leary said.
"It's bad and getting worse," he said.
To fill the gap, the office has been charging some crimes as civil forfeitures, O'Leary told the county's criminal justice coordinating council last month.
"We don't have time to deal with the lesser ones any more," O'Leary recently said to The Gazette. "The lesser ones are going to be given a municipal citation."
The issue is one of the reasons O'Leary supports stronger sentences for repeat intoxicated drivers. The primary issue is public safety, he said. Stronger sentences and the use of a treatment court for intoxicated drivers also could reduce the number of repeat offenders.
"Repeat offenders frustrate everyone in the criminal justice system and add to our crushing caseload," O'Leary said.
Despite the shortage of bodies to handle the workload, O'Leary says his office is fortunate because turnover remains low compared to offices in other Wisconsin counties.
At a recent prosecutors conference, O'Leary learned that a third of the state's district attorneys are newly elected. He met one district attorney who graduated from law school in 2010 and never handled a criminal case before being elected.
In some counties, turnover is between 50 and 60 percent annually in the office, he said.
Since 2005, assistant district attorney turnover has been 18.4 percent annually, according to a 2011 study by UW-Madison's Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs. That compares with a turnover rate of between 5 and 7 percent for public employees overall, according to the report.
In 1989, a change in state law made assistant district attorneys state workers. The goal at the time was to stop the trend of attorneys using the prosecutor's office as a "starter job," O'Leary said. At the time, attorneys would get jobs as prosecutors to get trial experience. After a few years, they would leave for more lucrative private practices.
Making prosecutors state employees reversed the trend for a time, but that time is over, O'Leary said.
"We've come full circle to where it was 20 years ago," he said. "Because of the lack of pay progression and support by the state, prosecutors are leaving the profession in droves."
According to Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development data, the average salary for an entry-level attorney in Rock County in 2011 was $47,840. The average salary for an experienced attorney was $104,350. Around the state, entry-level attorneys in 2011 made an average of $51,230; experienced attorneys made an average of $135,800, according to the data.
This spring, a job posting for a Rock County assistant district attorney advertised starting pay at $23.67 per hour or $37,872 per year, according to Office of State Employment Relations data.
The fiscal bureau used a complicated formula to determine the number of attorneys each county should have to manage its workload, O'Leary said. Factors include the types of cases handled by the offices. Each kind of case is assigned a weight based on the amount of time typically needed.
Each day, O'Leary gets a stack of new referrals for people taken into custody the previous day. He reads them and assigns most to assistant district attorneys. He assigns the remainder to himself or Deputy District Attorney Perry Folts.
Two assistant district attorneys regularly handle child abuse cases. One handles juvenile referrals, several have specialized training to handle drug cases, and one is dedicated to the county's drug court program.
Each attorney decides whether the case is strong enough to result in conviction. If the answer is "yes," the office files charges in court.
In addition to reviewing referrals and preparing cases for trial, O'Leary and his staff have other time-consuming responsibilities, he said.
One is working with crime victims, a job that is as emotionally draining as it is time-consuming, he said.
"Victims have the constitutional right to be advised and to participate in a case," O'Leary said. "They have the right to consult with a prosecutor."
Another chore that piles up is the handling of warrant requests to bring people into custody for investigations, O'Leary said.
"Those are not arrests. Those are not statistics," he said. "Those are cases under investigation. We need a warrant to grab the person to start the investigation."
Those cases are less timely and are set aside in favor of new cases in which people have been taken into custody, he said
"We don't have time to get to them (warrants) because we are still putting out the fires of today."
By the numbers
When police arrest someone on suspicion of committing a crime, the arrest information is forwarded to the Rock County District Attorney's Office for review. District Attorney David O'Leary divides the referrals between himself, the deputy district attorney and 12 assistant district attorneys.
The attorneys file charges in court if they think they can prove a crime was committed. Not all referrals result in charges.
Below is the number of referrals by month in 2012, according to district attorney's office data. These numbers do not include juvenile cases, which are handled by one of the 12 assistant district attorneys.