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Legislators look to add county prosecutors
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MONROE - A proposal to increase the amount of staff in rural Wisconsin county district attorney offices has been celebrated by an area lawmaker, but Green County District Attorney Craig Nolen said the methods used to identify each office's need are lacking.

"There is absolutely, 100 percent a need for it," Nolen said. "Their caseload analysis, however, is something to be desired."

The final 2012-2014 District Attorney Office Workload Analysis was the document used to allocate specific amounts of aid to each county DA office.

An Assembly amendment to state Senate Bill 54 calls for additional funding to hire more prosecutors in rural areas. In a statement released Feb. 21, when he first called for the inclusion of the measure in the state Assembly, 51st District Representative Todd Novak outlined the need for additional staff to tackle drug abuse issues.

"Our rural communities continue to struggle with the opioid epidemic and the prosecution of drug related crimes," the statement read. "This proposal will give our counties the tools they need to crack down on the drug abuse and serious crimes that are occurring in Southwest Wisconsin."

Roughly $4 million will be dedicated to allow the hiring of more than 50 positions across 40 Wisconsin counties. The positions will take effect on the first day of July 2019. Green County will receive a half-time position for a total of 1 1/2 positions, Novak noted in his statement. In the bill, the majority of counties, from Brown to Wood, will receive two additional positions through the measure.

Need for more staffing was identified through the evaluation of workload, assigning a specific number of hours prosecutors are likely to spend on a case. Nolen said the process has "unrealistic weights and expectations."

"Twenty hours per week for a prosecutor is not much," Nolen said.

Lafayette County District Attorney Jenna Gill agreed. As the sole prosecutor for the county, Gill said the county deals with drug-related cases but does not currently operate a drug court as Green County does. A drug court provides a treatment alternative to criminal cases involving illegal substances in a program to last a year or longer. She noted her office would likely need additional staffing if one were put in place.

Gill said the timespan necessary to try different types of cases was inaccurate but noted she understood lawmakers need a measurement to be able to take action with this type of funding. While Nolen has Assistant District Attorney Laura Kohl in his office, Gill operates without additional staff since elected roughly a year ago.

"I really don't have a good evaluation of whether I can do everything on my own," Gill said.

But Nolen does, and he has asked Green County to accommodate the increased need for another full-time prosecutor. In a letter to the Green County Board of Supervisors in September, Nolen proposed two budgets from the DA office. One contained an increase of $72,000 to hire a full-time lawyer with benefits and a one-time cost for office furniture and supplies.

In the request, Nolen said he commonly heard people say committing a crime was ideal in Green County.

"I surmise that part of that sentiment was based in significant part upon the understaffing and budgetary constraints of the Green County District Attorney's Office and as a result, the frustrated ability of prosecutors to effectively prosecute a case to seek a just and appropriate sentence, rather than churning cases through the system," Nolen wrote in the letter.

However, the request was not approved.

The proposal was approved in Assembly, but SB 54 has not yet been sent to the governor's desk for signature. Novak noted in his release that Gov. Scott Walker has expressed support for the proposal.