DA gets more help in state action

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JANESVILLE - The Rock County District Attorney's Office should see relief from heavy workloads with the first increase in the number of prosecutors in many years, according to Rock County District Attorney David O'Leary.

O'Leary and Walworth County District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld commented Tuesday after Gov. Tony Evers announced that 56 counties will see an increase in their budgets for assistant district attorneys.

Walworth County will see the number of assistant district attorneys increase from five to six, Rock County from 14 to 15.

The move addresses a longstanding complaint statewide that caseloads are overwhelming prosecutors.

Workload studies show Rock County should have three new prosecutors and Walworth County should have 1.85, the DAs said.

O'Leary said his office stopped charging low-level misdemeanors, such as marijuana possession and shoplifting, years ago because of a lack of prosecutors. Those cases go to municipal courts or are treated like a traffic ticket.

Even with that reduction, assistant district attorneys average 500 cases a year, O'Leary said, adding: "The added resource is going to be greatly appreciated by my staff."

The attorneys' time also has been diverted to the county's newer specialty courts, O'Leary said. The attorneys work in drug court, OWI court, veterans court and family court as part of a team that tries to address the roots of criminal behavior.

It's possible OWI (Operating While Intoxicated) court could expand from the current practice and start taking fourth- and fifth-offense drunken driving cases, O'Leary said.

State figures show Rock County criminal cases have declined by 7% in the past five years. O'Leary said that's a reflection of his decision not to charge some misdemeanors, but he said despite the decline, his prosecutors are still "overrun."

Wiedenfeld said his prosecutors have been working nights and weekends and foregoing vacation to handle the work. State figures show the number of criminal cases filed in Walworth County has risen by 48% in the past five years, driven largely by misdemeanor cases.

Evers approved more than 60 new positions statewide, saying it was the first increase in the number of state prosecutors in more than 10 years.

"For far too long our county district attorney offices have been doing more with less," Evers said in a news release. "This historic investment will enable our county officials to improve victim services, enhance diversion and treatment options for those struggling with substance use disorders, and address backlogs that are standing in the way of justice.

"We can't make the critical changes needed to reform our criminal justice system in Wisconsin if our county district attorney offices are overworked and understaffed," Evers said.

O'Leary said the new position will allow him to appoint one prosecutor to oversee bail recommendations as the county seeks to reduce bias and increase fairness in decisions that affect who must stay in jail pending court proceedings and who goes free.

O'Leary also hopes to dedicate an attorney to the county drug units to help with search warrants and advice on whether an arrest is warranted, and he wants to be able to send an attorney to oversee every CARE House interview, where children are questioned about abuse or neglect.

The increase was in the recently passed state budget, but until now, DAs did not know which counties would benefit, O'Leary said.

"I know that our local legislators have been working really hard to help us with our prosecutor shortage, and it was a big effort from lot of different people to make this happen. We really appreciate it and want the public to know we're still going to be working hard for them," Wiedenfeld said.

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