Between 2001 and 2007, 75 percent of Wisconsin’s assistant district attorneys (ADAs) left their jobs. The annual turnover rate for ADAs has risen from 15.6 percent in 1990 to 18.4 percent since 2004.
To put that in perspective, the average annual turnover rate for state employees is between 5 percent and 7 percent. Many times, young ADAs left simply because they were not making enough money to start families and pay back student loans. They knew they could make substantially more money in the private sector. They were also frustrated because their compensation was not based on individual merit and there was little incentive to stay in the public sector.
At the same time, the number of criminal cases filed in the state has been increasing. Between 2001 and 2006, criminal cases increased 11.5 percent and felony cases went up 16.2 percent. This rapid turnover means that inexperienced attorneys are frequently handling difficult and complex cases.
This is why I introduced Senate Bill 394, which creates a merit-based pay progression plan. This will give elected district attorneys a way to retain good ADAs and prevent the position from being used simply as a stepping stone between law school and private practice.
The pay progression plan is not a new idea. In fact, it was implemented in 1989 when ADAs were transferred from county to state employees. nder the pay progression structure, the elected District Attorney who appointed and supervised the ADAs determined how the ADAs moved on the payment scale. The pay progression plan was eliminated in 2002.
SB 394 reinstates the pay progression plan structure, but does not provide additional funding to increase the pay of assistant district attorneys. Additional funding should be debated on its own merits as part of the biennial budget process next year.
In 2011, one of the state’s district attorneys completed a survey of ADAs throughout the state and learned that 41.8 percent have five years of experience or less. Only 24 percent have between six and 15 years of experience. Crime victims stand a good chance of having a lawyer with less experience than the lawyer representing the accused.
At the public hearing on the bill, one police chief commented on the problem of losing ADAs, explaining that cases languish as a new attorney is brought in and brought up to speed. Often, this process is repeated every three to five years as young ADAs move into the private sector. It can make justice inefficient. As many of us have experienced, it takes a while to learn how to do a new job. This is particularly evident in professions as complex as the law.
SB 394, which passed nearly unanimously through the state legislature, gives Wisconsin district attorneys a critical tool essential to retaining an experienced workforce. SB 394 acknowledges the financial stress that the state is currently under and creates the critical framework that may be funded in the next budget.
Given the strong bipartisan support for this proposal, I am very optimistic that Governor Scott Walker will sign it into law.