A pay raise for private attorneys contracted by the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Office is long overdue.

These attorneys are important to the judicial system because they take cases whenever the public defender’s office has a conflict of interest or a manpower shortage.

Yet they have spent the last 24 years making only $40 per hour.

Ignored for years, the pay issue has finally attracted the Legislature’s attention, and its budget committee voted this week to increase pay to $70 per hour.

The large gap between the current rate and new proposed rate spotlights a decades-long failure on the Legislature’s part. It’s shocking to think private attorneys hired to take public defender cases earned $45 per hour in 1977 and then $50 per hour 1992. The Legislature in 1995 then cut their pay to $40 an hour. That’s right—cut it.

Giving pay raises to attorneys who represent defendants accused of committing crimes might not be the most politically popular decision. But there’s more at stake than just the interests of defendants, who have a constitutional right to representation.

When courts must delay cases because the public defender’s office cannot find representation for a defendant, justice is delayed for victims.

Providing defendants with timely and competent representation allows for the timely adjudication of cases. That’s something all taxpayers should want, regardless of a defendant’s guilt or innocence.

At $40 per hour, private attorneys serving as public defenders are doing little more than charity work for the state, which has been desperate for their services, especially in northern Wisconsin. Courts in northern Wisconsin have even asked attorneys from our region to take their cases, and some attorneys have done so at a financial loss, as Gazette reporter Jonah Beleckis noted in a Monday story about the proposed pay increase.

Despite the widespread, bipartisan support for the raises, there’s an important difference between Gov. Tony Evers’ proposal and the Legislature’s. Both want to increase pay to $70 per hour, but Evers goes a step farther in seeking to automatically adjust future pay to match inflation.

Inflation indexing makes sense, and the state gets into trouble whenever it ignores the effects of inflation. Its refusal to adjust the gas tax for inflation, for instance, has starved the state’s transportation fund and caused roads to deteriorate and become some of the nation’s worst.

Businesses and households account for inflation in their decisions, and government should, too.

There’s little question private attorneys hired by the public defender’s office deserve $70 per hour. Now, the Legislature should take action to ensure the state doesn’t get into this predicament again.

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