MADISON — Private attorneys who accept indigent defense appointments in Wisconsin say it's time the state raise the hourly rate for taking such cases.
At $40 an hour, Wisconsin ranks lowest in the country for paying private lawyers who agree to represent clients who can't afford an attorney. A group of lawyers plans to ask the state Supreme Court on Thursday to increase the rate to $100 an hour, which would be among the highest rates in the country.
Wisconsin hasn't raised the rate in 25 years. Some prominent attorneys tell the Journal Sentinel (http://bit.ly/2rkxRd5 ) the rate is so low that the state's most competent lawyers often don't take the cases.
Milwaukee criminal defense lawyer John Birdsall, who co-authored the court petition, said a $100 rate is reasonable when you take into account the costs of office space, insurance, staff and legal services. The increase would cost the state about $34 million more per year and cover roughly 55,000 publicly appointed cases.
Most of the 30 states that pay attorneys an hourly rate for such cases offer $60 to $90 for felonies and $100 to $120 for homicide cases.
Criminal defense lawyer Denise Hertz-McGrath takes on about 50 clients a year who can't afford an attorney.
"I think we have an obligation to take these cases," she said, noting that the current rate is barely enough to cover the overhead of her private practice.
Over the past two decades, several organizations have unsuccessfully tried to get the Wisconsin Legislature to raise the rate. Democratic Rep. Fred Kessler of Milwaukee has introduced three bills to raise the rate, including one this legislative session.
"There's very little sympathy for criminals and their need for lawyers," Kessler said.