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As Wisconsin struggles to hire prosecutors, one DA resigned because of the workload

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Local prosecutors' offices across the U.S. are struggling to hire enough lawyers. In Wisconsin, the staffing shortage in one county became so severe and the workload so heavy, a longtime district attorney said he had no choice but to resign. From Wisconsin Public Radio, Sarah Lehr reports.

SARAH LEHR, BYLINE: Dodge County, Wis., is about an hour outside Milwaukee. For more than a decade, Kurt Klomberg served as the county's top prosecutor. He says they typically file charges in more than a thousand criminal cases each year. But this year, Klomberg was facing a crisis. The office's four assistant district attorneys were soon to be gone, in part because of retirements. Faced with few applicants to fill those positions, Klomberg too handed in his notice. He says there was no way for him to responsibly handle the caseload on his own.

KURT KLOMBERG: I realized that that was going to cause me to probably commit multiple acts of malpractice just because I wouldn't have the time to properly address my cases.

LEHR: The staffing crunch is a problem statewide. Close to 12% of Wisconsin's assistant DA jobs are vacant and turnover is high. Klomberg and other prosecutors say low pay is largely to blame. Starting pay for Wisconsin's assistant DAs is less than $57,000 a year, while recent law school grads in private practice can make, on average, nearly $140,000 a year. Attorney Jennifer Tate says it's a big problem. The 36-year-old used to work at a private defense firm but took a pay cut to work as an assistant DA in Milwaukee County. When it became clear she couldn't make ends meet, she took a second job hostessing at a restaurant.

JENNIFER TATE: I just kind of laid it all out there, and I said, I work full time as a lawyer. I have three kids. I'm getting divorced. I'm going to have them half of the time. Here is when I'm available.

LEHR: Now, the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association is urging state lawmakers to raise starting pay for both assistant district attorneys and assistant public defenders to more than $72,000 a year. It's part of the battle across the country to recruit and retain lawyers, some of whom have six figures of law school debt.

MELBA PEARSON: Wisconsin is not an outlier at all.

LEHR: Melba Pearson of Florida International University is a civil rights attorney and former prosecutor. She says it doesn't help that local prosecutors have heavy caseloads and often can't work remotely.

PEARSON: This is happening nationwide. Prosecutors' offices in all 50 states, whether it be conservative jurisdictions, progressive jurisdictions, anything in between, are really struggling.

LEHR: In Wisconsin, the state's bar association says a lack of experienced prosecutors, coupled with the shortage of public defenders, is so bad, it's approaching a constitutional crisis. Many courts are still wading through a post-pandemic backlog, and some attorneys just aren't available. That's often caused frustration for victims and in some cases forced people accused of crimes to wait longer in jail. And Pearson notes overworked prosecutors have less time to weigh life-altering decisions like when to charge someone with a crime and what to recommend for bail.

PEARSON: You may end up in a situation where you're more likely to plea a case out just because of the fact that you have too many cases. And it's just not possible to work up each case the way it needs to be.

LEHR: In Dodge County, they're working to resolve the problem. Wisconsin's governor has appointed a new district attorney, and retired prosecutors have been helping out part time. But staffing is still uncertain. Like so many DA's offices, Dodge County is pleading for applicants. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Lehr in Wisconsin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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