County May Get Funds For 3rd Full Time DA
The over-burdened Marinette County District Attorney's office may soon be getting some much needed help in the form of a third full time District Attorney, paid for by the State of Wisconsin due to a provision of the state budget that was signed into law on Thursday, Sept. 21.
The state budget provision allows a special prosecutor to be appointed for two years to provide assistance in counties with a population of less than 45,000 "with a significant case backlog," as certified by the Department of Administration. Marinette County's population was 40,484 in the 2015 census, and the 400-case backlog reported by former District Attorney Allen Brey is almost certainly significant enough to meet the state threshold. The problem is, there are many other low population counties in the state that are likely to be seeking help, and possibly not enough money budgeted to fill all the requests.
Marinette County Board's Executive Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 4 took quick action to approve a resolution supporting District Attorney De Shea Morrow's request for that help, in hopes of being one of the first counties to apply.
County Board Chair Mark Anderson told the Executive Committee that counties that get their requests in quickly are more likely to be successful.
For that reason, and to avoid losing a month of the support they might otherwise get, he urged members to back Morrow's request without waiting for the County Board meeting on the last day of October, nearly a full month away.
The committee unanimously agreed. Without a dissenting vote they approved a resolution outlining Marinette County's difficulties and supporting Morrow's request.
In Wisconsin salaries of district attorneys and their assistants are provided by the state, while clerical help and office equipment are provided by the counties. Marinette County for the eight years that Brey was District Attorney had refused to provide added office staff, and for the last several months attorney time in the Marinette DA's office has been short of the 2.4 positions authorized by the state.
Based on population, under state rules Marinette County is entitled to two and a half full time District Attorney positions but has been operating with less than that, partly because of the difficulty of finding an attorney willing to accept a half time post and partly due to personnel change-overs.
For a time Morrow was the only attorney working in the office.
According to Jacalyn LaBre, president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association and Manitowoc County District Attorney, national standards call for one district attorney for every 10,000 residents. Wisconsin' numbers do not come close."District attorneys' offices all around the state are horribly understaffed," she declared.
The state's 2016 workload analysis shows that Wisconsin is 139 prosecutors short of what it needs. Seven counties are fully staffed. Eleven are operating at or below half of their staffing needs. The rest fall somewhere in between.
Anderson noted the special prosecutor provision for low population counties sunsets at the end of the two-year state budget, so if a month is lost it will not be regained unless the provision is repeated in the next biennial budget.
The resolution approved by the Executive Committee for submission in support of Morrow's request states that the county had recognized the need for additional prosecutors and had budgeted in excess of $20,000 to help fund a second full time DA position, and that it supports the petition for a special prosecutor to process the significant case backlog.
In August and September County Board had held off on appropriating the added pay Morrow had requested to bring the half time post to full time, in hopes that the state would come through with the needed funds, which has now happened.
In her request for state assistance Morrow explained her office is allocated three attorney positions. They are an elected District Attorney, a full time Assistant District Attorney, and a half time Assistant District Attorney who does not qualify for state benefits.
Since June 13, 2016 the full time assistant DA position has been vacant."Because this position does not qualify for State benefits and because the salary is roughly $24,000 this position is extremely difficult to fill," Morrow wrote.
"Beginning in June, 2016, the Marinette County District Attorney's office has been in a continuous cycle of change. Assistant District Attorney Kent Hoffman, with over 20 years of experience in the criminal justice system, accepted a judicial appointment to Sheboygan County Circuit Court," she wrote.
At the same time, a long-time legal secretary retired. The office then went through two other legal secretaries after that retirement."Each new hire requires an extensive investment of time in training," Morrow's application continued.
In May of 2017 the Administrative Assistant for the office retired. One month later, on June 2, 2017, District Attorney Allen Brey resigned.
"DA Brey had nearly 30 years of experience as a prosecutor," Morrow wrote. "In July, 2017, the Administrative Assistant again become vacant. This position was filled Sept. 25, 2017. This cycle of change has resulted in the loss of experienced attorneys and staff, Morrow wrote.
Morrow did not mention that in announcing his decision to resign Brey had cited the growing backlog of cases and the impossibility of keeping up, given the staff with which he was provided. He said at that time that there was a backlog of more than 400 cases. He had been telling County Board that the office needed more help for nearly the full eight years he had served as District Attorney.
On June 2, when Brey's resignation became effective, Morrow took over as acting District Attorney. She had been the half time attorney in the office for several years, and that move left her the only one.
On June 20, Gov. Scott Walker appointed her to fill Brey's unexpired DA term, and she accepted. From June 2 through June 24 of 2017 she was the only attorney in the office, except that a special prosecutor handled three traffic intake dates during June, and a Special Prosecutor funded by the county has been handling Child in need of Protection and Services cases.
On June 24, Morrow's office hired a new full time Assistant District Attorney, a recent law school graduate. Since the new Assistant District Attorney is a brand-new attorney and new to the area it requires an extensive time investment from DA Morrow to train him," the document states.
"As of the end of September, 2017, the office had filed 172 new felony cases. 71 new misdemeanor cases and 166 new criminal traffic cases," Morrow's report went on.
By comparison, at the end of September, 2016, the office had filed 169 new Felony cases, 59 new misdemeanor cases, and 150 Criminal Traffic cases.
The office currently has over 400 unreviewed criminal referrals, Morrow said. She added that filing production of criminal cases by the office has "remained fairly consistent despite the staffing situation described above. The Marinette County District Attorney's office is operating at full capacity even though the office is understaffed and dealing with some level of inexperience. Despite this fact, the backlog is over 400 cases and continues to grow."
On a more optimistic note, she went on, "increasing the .5 FTE position to a full-time special prosecutor for a limited time will allow this office to hire a qualified full time attorney. The addition of this position over a two-year period, will allow this office to keep pace with current incoming referrals and allow the office to address the backlog."
She concluded that with three full time attorneys in the office for the two year period she will be able to implement a plan to eliminate the backlog. "This plan will involve each lawyer being responsible to address a certain amount of backlogged referrals on a weekly basis in addition to keeping up with the current referrals. With three full time attorneys working to address the backlog in this fashion, DA Morrow is confident that the backlog will be significantly decreased if not eliminated.
"DA Morrow bases that confidence on past experience in prior years where the office functioned to keep up with current referrals and had a very minimal backlog."
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