One of my favorite things about being a State Senator is engaging with students about how our government works. Many of you remember Schoolhouse Rock and could probably come up with some of the lines in “I’m just a bill.” Although that song refers to Capitol Hill, the process is remarkably similar in Madison. But what that song doesn’t capture, and what I try and explain to the students, is that the legislature is only part of the process and that our votes, and bills, are informed by what happens in our communities.
For example, I need regular information from the men and women on the front lines of our communities - County Judges, District Attorneys, Sheriffs and other members of law enforcement. What they are telling me is that the drug crisis is straining our justice system to its limit. District Attorneys need additional resources to prosecute cases. And things crash to a halt when Public Defenders are not available. Those facing charges are sitting in custody for weeks before attorneys are able to review and investigate their cases. Victims await closure, children are denied permanency while their parents wait for representation and subjects committed under probable cause determinations remain institutionalized. All of this is an enormous burden on the community.
In my last column, I mentioned that I wanted to focus on some of the good things in the budget, things that didn’t make the headlines of our local papers or TV news broadcasts. Even in today’s highly polarized political climate, there are areas of agreements by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, things that will make positive changes in people’s lives and the wellbeing of our state.
One of these areas where we have been able to move past politics is in the fight against drugs. Far too many of our friends and loved ones are falling into addiction to narcotics that can tear apart families and upend communities.
Governor Evers’ 2019-21 biennial budget called for funding a further 60 assistant district attorney (ADA) positions statewide, with Barron, Bayfield, Burnett, Dunn, Polk, and Sawyer set to receive new staff under his proposal. The Joint Finance Committee, which debates and amends the Governor’s proposal, agreed, and provided additional resources in the bill they passed. The Governor’s veto of certain language in the bill provides an opportunity to try and secure even more resources for Northern Wisconsin. I look forward to working with our District Attorneys and with the Department of Administration to ensure that we get our fair share. This will take stress off of our local counties and municipal governments, and will also help move individuals through our justice system, hopefully getting them into drug treatment and other diversion programs.
When more cases move through the courts, we must make sure that individuals facing trial are properly represented. For too long the State Public Defender’s office has been stretched thin. Salaries have not been raised since 1992. Under the Governor’s proposal and what was ultimately signed by him in late June of his year, attorneys that serve as public defenders will see their rates increased by 43%, further incentivizing them to take up cases and start addressing the backlogs.
Stopping the spread of drugs, be it in Northern Wisconsin or statewide, is not a simple task. No one policy will help curb abuse. But with this budget, our criminal justice system is better equipped to make a difference in people’s lives and that’s a good thing that you might not have read about or heard on the local news.