Senator Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwatosa) is passionate about locking up the bad guys but he sees a justice system in crisis.
On the Senate floor, Senator Sullivan said, “We are currently short 132 prosecutors across the state and face a cut of 21 additional prosecutors. We need to lock up the bad guys but we have an overworked and inadequate workforce to do this.”
There are many reasons our justice system is in trouble. One is that the federal government is cutting money necessary to prosecute drug, gun and domestic violence crimes. With concerns about the budget, the war and the downturn in the economy - Washington is cutting back.
Senator Sullivan authored a bill to restore funding for prosecutors – those people who bring charges against alleged criminals. While the state funds most of these positions, some money – especially for prosecutors with special jobs – comes from the federal government.
Senator Sullivan and I serve on the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections and Housing. Serving on this committee has been the biggest education for this Buffalo County farmer.
I learned that no matter how you look at it – the judicial system doesn’t have the resources to do the job. Whether the need is a judge in Monroe or Juneau County; a full time district attorney in Trempealeau or public defenders in Eau Claire – the entire system needs help.
Some of the problems were brought to light through a recent audit of the state’s spending on prosecutors. In particular the audit found:
- The number of prosecutor positions has declined every year since 2003.
- Prosecutor caseloads have increased over the past five years.
- Sixty three counties are under staffed.
- In the age of computer crime, funding for information technology to support prosecutors has declined by nearly 30% over the past 5 years.
In a system already stretched thin, the announcement of the cut in federal funding sent prosecutors to the State Legislature. “We exhausted every option prior to this funding bill,” stated Assistant District Attorney Jeff Greipp as he testified before our Judiciary Committee.
“Since 2001, nearly 60% of the State’s prosecutors have left service, leaving the entire prosecution system based on not only a lack of competence but a terrible lack of experience” Greipp testified.
Being short staffed and inexperienced translates to an inadequate job in prosecuting crime. As the state audit reported, the results were “less timely prosecutions, more decisions not to prosecute, and settling cases out of court with lighter penalties.”
“The impact on the state is immediate and severe,” said District Attorney Ralph Uttke. “The historic problems continue to exponentially increase from crisis to now emergency. We urge the legislature to act on behalf on its citizens who have been victimized by violent crime. We urge them not to allow a broken criminal justice system to victimize them again.”
The state faces serious budget problems on many fronts. The decline of federal money compounds the situation. Yet, budgets are about priorities. Those of us fortunate enough to stay out of the judicial system forget we could easily be the victim of a crime.
Solving the problems won’t be easy and everything is related. Money for prosecutors can’t be used to build roads. I expect we will be working beyond our scheduled session to find solutions to our budget problems. I join my Judiciary committee colleagues in making sure when funding decisions are made; the voices of victims of violent crimes are heard.