Saturday, February 25, 2017

Public defenders may face big deficits, and Walker's not dealing with it

In addition to lower revenues, one other item that seems likely to throw a wrench into Scott Walker's budget giveaways is the fact that other needs aren't being taken care of. One of these items comes from the area of Public Defenders, which already face a sizable deficit over the last 4 months of this fiscal year, and will likely face more problems in the 2017-19 biennium.

This was reiterated in an update given to the state's Joint Finance Committee this week. This report not only shows the workload and payments that state is making for its own public defenders, but also the costs it has to shell out for private lawyers to take on some of these cases (also known as "private bar attorneys."
Between October 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016, the SPD (Office of the State Public Defender) appointed counsel in 32,652 cases. Of the total cases assigned, 13,030 were assigned to private bar attorneys either on a rotational or contract basis. The total expended this quarter from the private bar appropriation under 20.550(1)(d) was approximately $5.99 million.
And that $2 million a month given out to private attorneys is a problem, because high expenses in that account last year means that there isn't enough to last through the end of this Fiscal Year on June 30.

Private bar appropriation
2015-17 2-year budget $44,097,800
2015-16 Fiscal Year $27,020,146
2016-17 1st Half $9,647,938
2016-17 Remaining 2nd half $7,429,716

If we continued to spend $2 million a month to private attorneys to provide counsel, this would mean we would have a deficit of over $4.5 million by June 30. And if you think we could just have our current staff of State Public Defenders take on more work, that seems unlikely to be a solution. The state's Public Defenders are already adding to their caseload, although somehow they're saving a bit of money by doing so.

State Public Defenders cases, expenses
Caseload, Trial
2015-16 Fiscal Year 79,987
2016-17 First Half 40,567
2016-17 Full-year Pace 81,134

Caseload, Appellate
2015-16 Fiscal Year 1,313
2016-17 First Half 659
2016-17 Full-year Pace 1,318

Combined costs, SPD staff
2015-16 Fiscal Year actual cost $58,083,389
2016-17 First Half $24,814,443
2016-17 Full-Year Pace $49,628,886
2016-17 Full Year budget $58,239,000

So if that $49.6 million figure holds up, that would allow enough savings in the 2016-17 budget for the SPD's office to cover the private bar deficit of $4.5 million. But I also have doubts that the State Public Defenders are handling more cases for much lower cost, so it seems more likely that the "lower" costs reflect delayed billings that are being paid at a future year and then not being credited back to the proper quarter. Bottom line- do not be surprised if some measures have to be taken in the next months to give extra funding to the private attorneys, and possibly the SPD as well.

These shortfalls led the SPD to ask for an added $16 million in funding for the 2017-19 budget, with the overwhelming amount of that money being related to increases to cover private bar payments and related SPD counsel needs. But Governor Walker's budget only has $1.15 million of that increase included. At the same time, Walker's budget allows the SPD board to ask for more staff to handle the bigger workload, but it doesn't set aside money that would pay those people, which seems like absurdly duplicity (but not surprising with this crew). Lastly, Walker's budget consolidates the entire Public Defender appropriations into a block grant, with the private bar and SPD counsel costs no longer being separated. Seems like something you'd want to track and pay for separately, and it makes you wonder the point behind such a move.

In other words, on the issue of Public Defenders, our governor is again ignoring the real additional costs of governmental duties that have to be paid for one way or the other, and passes off the responsibility of dealing with this real issue to the State Legislature. The JFC and Legislature now either have to find a source for extra money (good luck doing so in a budget that is facing dwindling revenues and no cushion to begin with), or our neediest defendants are going to have to wait longer for the counsel they are entitled to while the SPD defenders get even more overworked (and underpaid).

Somehow, I'm guessing that screwing over poorer defendants and the lawyers who defend them isn't something that alleged Christian Scott Walker cares much about, but decent people who actually believe in our Constitution probably do. And while the dollar amounts are a relatively small sidelight in this budget, the lack of caring and resources given about the necessities for a democratic society is a symptom of the larger problem that afflicts Scott Walker and today's GOP.

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