Higher case loads bogging down public defenders

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- When someone is placed in police custody, they must be read their Miranda Rights before being questioned. This includes being told: "You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you."

"That's us," Laurie Osberg, the regional attorney manager for the Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office in Eau Claire, said to WEAU 13 News on Thursday.

Her office took on 6,068 cases during the 2016 fiscal year and is seeing those numbers move up. Osberg said this is delaying some accused people's right to a speedy trial - in some cases, by weeks or longer.

"As I've had to go into court and ask judges to move off preliminary hearings, I've had to go into the jail and explain to people that we just can't find council,” she said. “I think they feel lost. I think they feel frightened. I think they're concerned. I think they feel second-rate and it said it's heartbreaking for me."

Some cases which Osberg's office picks up are passed on to private bar attorneys, but they've seen 15 of these lawyers now choose not to handle them at the state rate of $40 an hour - one of the lowest levels in the nation.

"These attorneys are handling cases that can take hours of preparation and planning and investigation and work and courtroom time,” she said. “That hourly rate is just not covering their own expenses. So that is becoming a problem for us in being able to handle this increase."

Jennifer Bias, a trial division director with the Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office, said this problem of an overstretched public defender's office is not just restricted here to Eau Claire County.

"I think the Eau Claire region is looking for lawyers in Madison and Milwaukee and Appleton. You know, that's the challenge in virtually every city in our state."

Said Osberg: "We have a finite number of staff, and actually we're down one attorney staff in our office. As the numbers of cases increase, our obligation to represent these people doesn't change."