Every weekday at 1 p.m. in a small locked courtroom in Kenosha, one person after another sits before a court commissioner for their first appearance after being charged with a crime.
The luckier ones come by appointment, stepping into the room when their name is called wearing street clothes.
The rest come to sit before the commissioner one at a time after spending the night in custody, dressed in orange jail uniforms or blue, quilt-like anti-suicide smocks, leg shackles jingling as their legs shake below the table.
For some it’s the first time they have ever been in trouble. For some it’s the most frightening experience of their lives.
And for most, the person who is talking them through it is a lawyer from the Kenosha Public Defender’s office, who met them just a few minutes before in a locked room adjacent to the locked courtroom.
In that room, the attorney talked them through the criminal complaint, learned a few facts about the person and the case, and explained what was about to happen.
The Kenosha Public Defender’s office handles the defense duties for the majority of criminal cases in the county. Carl Johnson, the attorney manager for the office, said each of the dozen lawyers on staff handle nearly 400 cases a year.
Those public defenders are so ubiquitous in the courthouse that it is difficult to believe that they were not always part of the criminal justice system. But until the late 1970s, there was no statewide system to handle the criminal defense of poor people charged with crimes.
This month, the Kenosha Public Defender’s office marked its 40th anniversary. The office opened the first week in March 1979, with three attorneys on staff.
“I was one of the three original founders,” said Geoffrey Dowse, now a judicial court commissioner.
Dowse said he joined the office two years after graduating from law school after first working as a defense attorney for a federally funded project aimed at providing attorneys for Native Americans in Wisconsin.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon vs. Wainwright in 1963 established that states are required under the Sixth Amendment to provide defense attorneys to defendants who are unable to afford one.
Wisconsin had already been trying to assure that poor people charged with crimes had representation if they could not afford it.
Before the office was established, a court commissioner would appoint a local private attorney for a defendant who could not afford a lawyer. That attorney was then paid by the local county government.
Judge Bruce Schroeder was a practicing attorney when the Kenosha office opened.
He started out in 1971 as a prosecutor, later served as district attorney, worked as a court commissioner, and then went into private practice before becoming a circuit court judge in 1983.
He said he remembers the appointment system that predated the office working relatively smoothly, but said it was costly for counties.
The state created the Wisconsin State Public Defender in 1965, but for years that office had just one attorney who handled appellate cases statewide.
In 1979, the state Legislature funded the creation of public defender offices for each county in the state.
Dowse remembered that Kenosha’s office was one of the earlier offices to open.
“The perception was, ‘Oh boy, these guys are going to be trouble,’” Dowse remembered.
He said he and the other attorneys were passionate about their jobs and looked to make their mark on the system.
“Getting to know the players was interesting as well, because we were the new kids on the block,” he said.
Donald Bielski, who now works in private practice, was a local public defender from 1984 to 1997. He said the statewide system “brought more professionalism to the people doing it, and was more cost effective too.”
It was also a way for idealistic young law school graduates to get into the courtroom.
“I wanted to get into the courtroom right away, and that was the best way to do it. I had friends from law school who got really good-paying jobs at big law firms — and they ended up being tucked away in libraries for 10 years.”
The one thing that bothers many in the system is that people sometimes look down on the lawyers who work in the office.
“Just make sure you put in there that public defenders are real lawyers,” Bielski said. “I didn’t become a ‘real’ lawyer just because I hung up my shingle.”
Trying to help people
The public defender’s office is still a place young lawyers come to get experience. For others, defending people with few resources is a passion, and they stay in the profession long-term.
Johnson, the current head of the office, has been a public defender for 13 years.
“I knew since I was a little kid that I wanted to be a public defender,” Johnson said.
He said his uncle was one of the original attorneys in the Racine Public Defender’s office, and when he was young he sat in on a trial and was hooked.
“I’m motivated to try to help people — that’s the biggest thing,” Johnson said. “It’s just to be there to try to help them in probably what is one of the worst moments of their lives.”
Statewide, the public defender system handles about 140,000 cases each year.
To qualify for an attorney, a defendant must meet income requirements that also look at assets, spousal income and assets, family size and the type of crime the person is charged with.
Statewide, the system is struggling, especially in rural areas. Offices cover cases that cannot be handled by their own attorneys by bringing in private attorneys. Those private attorneys are paid a base rate of $40 an hour, which hasn’t changed since 1995.
In Kenosha, Johnson said, private attorneys are usually hired only to take cases where there are conflicts that keep lawyers with his office from taking the cases. But in more rural counties, defendants sometimes wait weeks for a lawyer.
Bielski said he regularly gets calls from northern counties like Sawyer and Bayfield. “They’re begging us to take cases,” he said.
A critical right
Schroeder said the assurance that everyone, regardless of income, is guaranteed a defense attorney is a critical right.
“I wouldn’t want to live in that country,” he said, contemplating a system where poor people did not have that access.
“There are people who are accused who are accused by mistake,” he said.
In countries without the same protections, he said, “there are people who are prosecuted and sent to prison because they have fallen out of favor with the government.”
As a judge, Schroeder said he is impressed with the work of the office.
“They are not only very competent lawyers, they are very nice people to deal with,” Schroeder said. “We can be very proud of the system we’ve got.”