MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Wisconsin's low compensation rate for private attorneys has contributed to the shortage of lawyers willing to represent people who can't afford a private attorney, according to state officials.
The state Public Defender's Office has assigned about 40 percent of its approximately 138,000 cases each year to private attorneys, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.
The office pays attorneys $40 an hour to represent poorer clients, the lowest compensation rate in the U.S. for such cases. Wisconsin private attorneys must earn about $42 an hour to make overhead, according to a 2015 report from Sixth Amendment Center, a nonpartisan group focusing on criminal justice issues.
The state is struggling to find private attorneys willing to take public defender cases, said Randy Kraft, a spokesman for the public defender's office.
"Many cannot afford to devote much of their practice to taking a case that will require a great investment of hours at the $40 per hour rate when they could be working for a private-paying client for two, three ... upward as five times as much in terms of income," Kraft said.
The lack of lawyers is delaying victims' justice, said Kim Lawton, Bayfield County district attorney.
"They're waiting and they don't know why they're waiting," Lawton said. "We tell them because the defendant needs to have their attorney. Well, the victim wants to be able to heal and move on and that's part of their victim rights."
Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee and Republican Rep. Ron Tusler of Harrison proposed a bill earlier this year to raise the private bar compensation rate. The state would have needed $19 million to create a tiered system that where attorneys would be paid between $55 and $70 per hour depending on the amount of time spent on a case. The bill failed to gain support.