Shortage of public defenders causing delay in criminal cases

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- A shortage of defense attorneys across the state of Wisconsin is halting the progress of countless criminal cases. The issue is impacting courtrooms in Milwaukee.

Hundreds of cases are delayed each day simply because many defendants are waiting for an attorney to take their case.

Thomas Reed manages the public defender's office in Milwaukee, which appoints thousands of lawyers annually to people who can't afford to hire their own.

"In the last 18 months, we've had clients waiting in custody, sometimes for quite a while, before we could find a lawyer to take on their case," said Thomas Reed, regional attorney manager for the Wisconsin Public Defender's Office.

Several big criminal cases have been held up recently as defendants wait to be assigned counsel.

"Our office is at its limit in terms of its ability to staff attorneys to take cases. We have a lot of cases coming in which involve shooting, homicides, reckless driving," Reed said.

Reed says the key is finding attorneys qualified for those big cases who are not already carrying a heavy workload.

"Our staff and private bar attorneys tell us they are just at their limit in terms of the number of cases they feel they can take on," said Reed.

Delays in legal representation present challenges for defendants. "When you're charged with a criminal offense, naturally, there are things you want to have looked into right away. Witnesses, information you want your lawyer to investigate for you. Until a lawyer is appointed, some of that can't really take place," Reed explained.

So, what's the solution? Legal expert Julius Kim, with Kim & LaVoy, says there are less people interested in public defender work at this time.

He says the solution lies in an increase in funding to public defender offices and more qualified candidates being willing to do the work.

"The pay for public defenders has not gone up very much over the past several years. People coming out of law school know the pressures on public defenders are a lot higher these days," said Kim.

Experts says it could take years to clear the backlog of pending cases across Wisconsin's court system.

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