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Private attorneys step in after thousands of cases continue to be delayed due to lack of public defenders

Private attorneys take on more than 30% of cases
Posted at 5:36 PM, Apr 21, 2022

MILWAUKEE — A shortage of public defenders in the state is leading to private attorneys being asked to represent clients, which is being paid for with taxpayer dollars.

Statewide, more than 35,000 cases are backlogged. In Milwaukee County, it is more than 5,000 and 36% of those cases private attorneys are handling.

"Milwaukee could be called ground zero for the issue," said Adam Plotkin, Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office.

Plotkin said they're having to ask private attorneys for help. State attorneys take 64% of all eligible clients and private attorneys are stepping up and taking on the remaining 36% of those cases.

Thomas Law & Consulting Attorney Christian Thomas is one of many attorneys that answered the call.

TMJ4's Ubah Ali asked Thomas how often he was getting calls.

"I'm getting contacted hourly to take on cases from state defenders officer or the courts themselves," Thomas said.

He is representing Bryanna Johnson, one of the defendants accused of shooting of a George Webb worker in the face. She is charged with attempted first degree intentional homicide.

"Each one of these defendants are people who are often times sitting in jail, waiting for months on end for an attorney to be appointed," Thomas stated.

Thursday morning while in court, Thomas was shocked by what he saw.

"There were 12 defendants that their cases had to be adjourned," Thomas said. "Felony defendants one morning, 12 adjournments because there was no council appointments for those clients."

On top of rising crime and lack of qualified attorneys, pay is also a driving factor. The Wisconsin State Public Defender's Office in Milwaukee pays private bar attorneys $70 an hour to represent clients. The county pays $100 an hour.

"The reality is my private rate is $250 an hour," Thomas said.

However, Thomas said he and other aren't doing it for the money.

"There's so much good to be done in the criminal justice system," he said.

Plotkin said it will likely take at least two years to completely clear the backlog of court cases in Milwaukee County. He added it will also take a collaborative effort from everyone involved to get ahead of things.

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