A City At Risk?
"The community's less safe," says District Attorney John Chisholm, because of staff cuts.
The district attorney’s office is suffering staff cuts and losing experienced prosecutors, putting at risk initiatives designed to keep the community safer, says District Attorney John Chisholm. “I’m running out of options,” he admits.
The office is already down a half-dozen full-time lawyers since January and could lose ten more that are now supported by federal grant funding that may no longer be available, Chisholm says. He hopes to convince the state to pick up this funding, but Gov. Scott Walker sent an August letter to state department heads saying he expected most agencies to submit “zero growth” budgets.
There is also the obvious question: why would Walker help Chisholm, who has been running a John Doe investigation of Walker’s staff? Cuts in Chisholm’s operations might make it more difficult to fully staff that investigation. Answers the DA: “Every governor has a responsibility to provide adequate resources to parties protecting public safety.”
The staffing problems Chisholm faces go back many years. The state, which has traditionally funded county prosecutors in Wisconsin, has for years refused to hire enough to meet the needs, so the district attorney’s office turned to chasing grants to fill the gap. Grant funding accounts for about 1/3 of the office’s budget. “That’s the only way we’ve been able to survive,” Chisholm says.
But in recent years, “the federal grants have simply dried up,” he says. “They’re just not being funded at the same level.” And competition for the grants is tougher, as more financially-strapped local governments pursue the shrinking pool of grant funds.
For Milwaukee County, three assistant district attorney jobs are in jeopardy because Congress has failed to renew the Violence Against Women Act, five could be lost because federal Byrne Justice Assistance Grant funding may not continue, and two community prosecutors positions may also go due to other federal cuts.
Shifting these 10 prosecutors to state funding also would allow greater flexibility in how the DA’s office operates, Chisholm says. Grants greatly restrict the types of work staff can do. A prosecutor funded under a drug grant, for example, can’t pursue gun cases, even though guns and drugs often go together. The move to state funding would remove the “artificial limitations.”
Prosecutors “can still do the same functions – they can just do them better,” Chisholm says.
Chisholm says his plea to the state to take over some of the grant-funded positions is not new. “Every year we make the same pitch and every year it’s ignored by the legislature and the Department of Administration. It doesn’t matter what the party of the governor has been. The response has been the same. It’s frustrating.”
There were 129.5 ADAs in the district attorney’s office at the start of the year; there are 123.5 now. Chisholm, previously able to cut through attrition, made his first layoff a few weeks ago. He expects to be down three or four more positions by the end of the year, and another six or seven could disappear next year if nothing is done to save them.
County-funded support positions have been disappearing as well. When he assumed office in 2007, there were 162 support staff members, Chisholm says. Today, there are 135. Support staff, among other things, perform witness protection, process server, and crisis response duties.
Fewer resources mean longer pre-trial jail stays for defendants, an overcrowded county jail, and backed-up court calendars. “You’re going to see all of these backlogs… and the community’s less safe,” Chisholm says.
Community prosecutors provide early identification of problems in neighborhoods and work to prevent them from exploding into something serious. That could be lost if the prosecutors go.
The DA’s office has expanded offender risk assessment and diversion programs to “focus our efforts on people who scare us” and truly put the community at risk, identifying cases where prosecutors are needed the most. “Those things work,” Chisholm says. “It’s part of an overall strategy.”
But continued staff cuts could force a return to an old “assembly line model of justice,” where prosecutors could not specialize and, assigned to any given file on any given day, “would get to it when they could get to it,” Chisholm says.
Compounding the problem of disappearing positions is disappearing experience. The turnover among mid-level prosecutors is high, Chisholm said. They simply cannot afford to stay. A new prosecutor starts at about $49,000 a year. A prosecutor with 10 or 12 years of experience can pull down about $53,000. Many prosecutors start out with large law school debts and add a family along the line. The economics just don’t work for them.
Chisholm described his office staffing as an “hour glass” with a large “beginner” base, very few mid-level prosecutors, and a fairly substantial “senior” base of prosecutors who built up decent salaries before the state legislature started squeezing salaries several years ago. Since assuming office, Chisholm has appointed about 60% of the ADA staff; not coincidentally, about 60% of the staff makes $55,000 or less, he says.
The turnover and lack of experience hurt the office, Chisholm notes. Duties like inmate risk assessments require a certain skill set. “You’ve got to have experienced people to do that,” he says. The turnover “is just counter-productive after a while.”
So all he can do is continue to make the case for preserving positions and boosting pay. Thus far, though, “I just haven’t been able to convince people this is reaching an unsustainable level and we ought to do something about it.”
Gretchen Schuldt is Urban Milwaukee’s senior contributing writer.