Guardians of the criminal justice system: District attorney candidates decline in Wisconsin
After a 135-day investigation and nearly 1,000 pages of reports, the decision to indict Jacob Blake in the August 2020 shooting by a Kenosha town police officer remained at the discretion of one person: Kenosha County District Attorney.
“If you don’t have a case, you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt … then you have an ethical obligation not to charge such a case,” Kenosha County District Attorney said. , Michael Graveley, during a January 5, 2021 Press conference.
As elected officials, county district attorneys serve as the local custodian of the criminal justice system, deciding what crimes are charged and come before a judge. However, for a public official who receives considerable attention and faces public scrutiny – especially in high-profile impeachment decisions – district attorneys often go unchallenged on the ballot.
“I think if we increase the competition in these areas then you are going to end up giving the public a choice,” said Kurt Klomberg, the Dodge County District Attorney. “I think it’s important that we have these options.”
In the 2020 general election, only a handful of district attorneys were contested – with even fewer seats contested in the primaries. Klomberg said the lack of contested races prevents ADs from having to make their case to voters and deprives voters of the ability to influence how those elected officials do their jobs.
When there are races going on, Klomberg said, the public “is going to be told that this is the district attorney’s platform: these are the things that we are going to prioritize, these are the things that we want to accomplish, and they can watch and decide who they want to have in that position. “
With such influence on politics at the local level, what is it that drives so few lawyers to run for district attorney positions? Bayfield County District Attorney Kimberly Lawton said it was hard work.
“You will wake up at three in the morning, you will have to deal with extremely traumatic things, even for the prosecutor,” she said.
“It’s hard to say, ‘Here, step into a public position that will have you scrutinized by just about everyone – which is fine and appropriate, and we should be – but get paid less than if you were. in the private sector, “” Lawton added.
Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Bridgit Bowden explored why so few district attorney seats are contested.
Klomberg said wage disparities may be a real factor in discouraging experienced lawyers from running for district attorney positions. Assistant district attorneys are on a set salary scale statewide, while DA salaries vary based on their county’s population – those in smaller counties receiving lower salaries.
“Assistant district attorneys don’t want to step in and become a district attorney because they’re going to take a pay cut, or for the majority of them, they look in their crystal ball and say: the next term is over , I’m going to earn more than this DA, so why should I put this pressure on my family? ”he said.
Klomberg is the chairman of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association, and advocates for the creation of a uniform pay scale for DAs, similar to how state judges are paid.
“It doesn’t matter what county you are in or the population, all judges earn the same amount,” he said. “We don’t want to do this because we just want to line our pockets, it has to do with recruiting and keeping our best people in the DA position.”
Klomberg added that there was added stress in recruiting district attorney candidates in rural areas where few lawyers live. Lawyers in private practice can practice law in any county, while an attorney must live in the county they serve. Klomberg said adding a financial incentive to move to rural areas could attract more DA candidates.
The low turnover rate of district attorneys can also allow strong traditions in the criminal justice system to remain in place.
“We see that DAs have a lot of power over impeachment decisions – they have a lot of power over whether to lay charges (or) send someone to a diversion program,” Molly said. Collins, Director of Advocacy for American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.
“With the system we have now, I think people really want to see ADs make different choices,” she said.
“In an individual case, a prosecutor must be attentive not only to the indictment, conviction and forcible confinement, but also to other costs related to the initiation of a crime, to the search for a conviction,” he said. said Lanny Glinberg, University of Wisconsin-Madison Law. teacher and director of the school’s Prosecution Project, in an interview on May 28 with Frederica Freyberg on “Here & Now”.
“Not just the monetary cost of holding someone,” he added, “but there are real social costs as well”.
Collins said that the diversion courts for crimes like drug offenseswhile providing the opportunity to bypass the mainstream criminal justice system, often benefit white defendants more than defendants of other racial backgrounds. A change in the district attorney’s offices could also alter these priorities.
This change could be slow, however, according to Glinberg.
“It is risky to look at a new model of prosecution or to be more sensitive,” he said. “What has been politically sure is to run against crime, against criminals.”
Glinberg added that because district attorneys are elected county by county, some areas will favor a more traditional prosecution model than others.
The Wisconsin district attorney races will soon be on the ballot in 2024. Collins said challengers to sitting district attorneys may be a key factor for activists seeking changes in decision-making in matters of lawsuits, that’s only part of the picture – especially for broader issues like the systemic violence that blacks in Wisconsin have suffered at the hands of law enforcement.
“I always encourage people to report to DAs and I always encourage DAs to hold the police accountable, but I think we’ll always see some reluctance – at least until the policing systems change. somewhat, ”she said.
“I think there are a lot of things we need to do to dissolve police violence against black people, but one way to handle it,” Collins said, “AD could do more.”
PBS Wisconsin Executive News Producer Frederica Freyberg and Wisconsin Public Radio special projects reporter Bridgit Bowden contributed to this story. These video and audio reports are a WisContext collaboration between PBS Wisconsin and Wisconsin Public Radio.