Gretchen Schuldt

WI Public Defenders Office Wants 40 More Employees

Needs $7.6 million budget hike to handle “exponential increase” in video evidence.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Sep 23rd, 2020 03:42 pm
Milwaukee County Courthouse

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Jeramey Jannene

The State Public Defender Board is asking for 40 new employees and a budget increase of $7.6 million just to handle the additional demands caused by the “exponential increase in the number and length of video evidence” agency staff must plow through.

The jump in video volume comes from several sources, such as police officers’ body cameras, the agency said in its 2021-23 budget request. The requested budget boost would help pay for the new positions and 6,000 additional gigabytes of server space in which to store the video.

The video-related funding is part of the agency’s overall two-year budget request of $233.6 million, up $14.8 million, or 6.8 percent, from its previous budget of $218.8 million, according to budget documents.

Attorneys must review evidence, including video, under Supreme Court rules, the agency said.

“Not only must the attorney(s) review the evidence, but they must review it with their client as well,” SPD said. “As the number of body worn cameras and other video sources has increased, so has the workload it requires for an attorney to review the video. Even a brief interaction with law enforcement usually requires viewing hours of video as multiple officers and squad car cameras create multiple views of the law enforcement contact, each of which could provide different information.”

A recent survey of 100 SPD staff lawyers showed that about half spend six to 10 hours per week reviewing video, while about 18 percent spend more than 10 hours on that task. The remaining 33 percent spend one to five hours per week on videos.

Staff members also said they spend time organizing the videos and taking notes; working through software and video compatibility issues; getting all the relevant video; and comparing video to written police reports.

One issue complicating matters is the adoption in the April of the Marsy’s Law “victims’ rights” amendment to the state constitution.

Wrote one lawyer: “Since Marsy’s Law went into effect in May 2020, orders are being put in place which requires that my clients have to watch videos in my presence. This is doubling or tripling time it will end up taking.”

The SPD estimated how much time SPD staff and SPD-appointed lawyers spend in a year reviewing video. The estimate is based on the actual number of cases where an SPD lawyer provided defense counsel, and assumed 50 percent of the cases involved body camera footage. It does not reflect video from any other source, such as private or squad car cameras.

​The results:

Estimated video-generated workload for State Public Defender's Office

Estimated video-generated workload for State Public Defender’s Office

“Based on these data and a 2080 hour work year, just to download and review video would take the equivalent of 90.8 FTE positions,” the agency said. “The impact of the video workload is significant and unsustainable.”

The 40 staff members the agency requested include seven lawyers, 10 legal secretaries, nine paralegals, five investigators, and nine client service specialists.

Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and encouraging civic engagement in and debate about the judicial system and its operation.”

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