Ismael Ozanne

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne gives his opening statement to the jury during the trial of Chad Chritton in 2013. 

M.P. KING -- State Journal archives

Short staffing and a lack of regular pay increases, both perennial hot topics that Dane County district attorneys have complained about for years, are now costing the office some of its most experienced prosecutors.

Since late last year, five experienced felony prosecutors have either retired or taken jobs elsewhere, most of them citing pay or the stress of workloads caused by staff shortages as the reason for leaving.

“People are looking for ways to get out,” said former Assistant District Attorney Michael Finley, who retired last month after 31 years as a prosecutor in Kenosha and Dane counties but said he had hoped to work longer. “There’s more and more cases, there’s more and more stress.”

Between March 2014 and next month, the Dane County District Attorney’s Office will have lost 11 prosecutors to new jobs, retirements and personal situations, taking with them 230 years of experience, District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said. It’s a significant proportion of the 28 full-time prosecutor positions in the DA’s office, which includes one grant-funded job.

Replacing them, with two positions still to be filled, are lawyers with a total of 33 years of experience. And all but 10 of those years alone belong to former Kenosha County District Attorney Robert Jambois, who joined the staff in May after stints at the state Department of Transportation and in private practice.

“People aren’t moving through the pay range,” Ozanne said. “And we have crushing case-loads. I think that’s a large part of the turnover that we’ve seen.”

Three of those recently departed or about to depart have taken jobs with the state Department of Justice. Former Assistant District Attorney Robert Kaiser, known for many homicide, sexual assault and stalking prosecutions, left late last year with 36 years as a prosecutor. Shelly Rusch, a 28-year prosecutor specializing in sexual assault and domestic violence, left on Friday. And Deputy District Attorney Michelle Viste, who leaves the DA’s office next month, has been a prosecutor for 13 years.

Former Assistant District Attorney Matthew Moeser, who won recent convictions in the rape trial against former UW football recruit Dominic Cizauskas and in the child abuse case of Chad and Melinda Chritton, left for private practice earlier this year after 12 years as a prosecutor.

“It’s not a question so much of what any particular person makes in a year as far as I’m concerned, it’s that for whatever reason, the people who pay us have decided that they didn’t feel the need to either offer adjustments based on seniority, which I don’t care so much about, or merit or workload,” said Moeser.

State employees

Before 1990, prosecutors were paid by counties, but they became state employees in a bid to help smaller counties that had difficulty retaining prosecutors because of low pay.

Initially as state workers, prosecutors received step increases in pay, then merit increases. The idea, Finley said, was that prosecutors would move up the pay scale as their careers progressed toward handling felony cases.

But raises stopped coming. In the last state budget, legislators enacted and funded pay progression, and many assistant and deputy district attorneys received raises of about 10 percent.

Gov. Scott Walker’s 2015-17 budget proposal eliminated funding for pay progression, but the Joint Finance Committee added back a 2 percent pay increase in the second year of the biennium. The budget has yet to be approved.

Ozanne said that while anything is helpful, the amount isn’t adequate.

Without pay increases, newer prosecutors hang around for a few years, said Finley, then decide to go elsewhere where they earn more money.

That doesn’t happen only in Dane County. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said he sees young, enthusiastic prosecutors with three to four years of experience, whose careers are just starting to take off, come to his office to say that the job isn’t enough to help them pay off crushing student loan debts.

‘Sausage making’

Then there’s the chronic staff shortage. While the number of prosecutors in Dane County has been stagnant since about 1985 – it has actually declined as positions that were funded solely by state and federal grants dried up – Dane County’s population has jumped about 50 percent and local police departments have gotten bigger.

That means more cases are coming to the DA’s office for review and charging decisions, but fewer people are there to do the work. With less time to review incoming cases, Finley said, prosecutors are more likely to charge them as police recommend, rather than review them thoroughly, and sort them out later.

“There’s not a lot of time to sit down and read 500 pages or even 50 pages of police reports when you’ve got 12 (other cases) sitting on your desk right now, and they’re sitting in jail waiting on your decision and they have to have their hearings within a certain time frame,” Finley said. “There’s just no time to do it.”

That reduces the process, Rusch said, “into almost sausage making.”

“The number of cases and the pace at which we have to work has almost eliminated thoughtfulness,” she said, adding that good outcomes in cases come through thought, conversation and collaboration. “When we don’t have time to talk to each other, when we don’t have time to talk to defense lawyers, when we don’t have time to bring thoughtful motions to our cases, we’re making sausage. We’re not making justice.”

The most recent state workload analysis of staffing in DA’s offices found that statewide, DA’s offices are short by about 130 prosecutors. Dane County should have at least six more positions, according to the analysis. And it’s been like that for years, Ozanne said, through legislatures and governors of both parties.

This year’s budget request by state prosecutors sought 107 new positions statewide. Walker’s budget included no increases in prosecutors.

“I think it’s fair to say that all legislators should know the issues we have with shortage of staff and the lack of pay progression,” Ozanne said. “This is a public safety crisis. This isn’t something that doesn’t affect us all. This isn’t a partisan issue. This is statewide.”

State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, said he’s sympathetic to the need for more prosecutors and he agrees that it is a matter of public safety. He said that all state agencies want more money and more workers, but resources and political will are limited.

“We should have the tools to maintain the justice system,” Risser said. “But it’s quite frustrating right now to be unable to provide what we consider necessary services.”

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said Walker “is committed to public safety and has made investments in crime prevention, treatment programs, and mental health treatment just to name a few initiatives.”

‘All legislators should know the issues we have with shortage of staff and the lack of pay progression. This is a public safety crisis. This isn’t something that doesn’t affect us all. This isn’t a partisan issue. This is statewide.’ Ismael Ozanne
Dane County district attorney

Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.