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Petryk column: Protecting our communities through criminal justice reforms

In February I joined a number of my Assembly colleagues to talk about the need to focus state budget discussions on improving the criminal justice system to help our local communities. The goal was to improve the system from start to finish. During the press conference, the group talked about a number of policies that I'm pleased to announce which have recently been included in the state budget by the Budget writing committee.

The amendments that were added in the budget include:

Additional support for our local district attorneys. The budget amendment will provide additional assistant district attorneys for Dunn and Eau Claire counties. Dunn and Eau Claire counties especially have seen a large increase in caseloads because of the methamphetamine crisis. For example, in 2008 Eau Claire County had 840 felony cases on file. In 2017 there were 1,533. To also help the workload the budget motion included pay raises for our ADA's to help with retention efforts.

Increasing the public defender pool. Currently, Wisconsin has one of the lowest reimbursement rates for private attorneys taking public defender cases in the country. This is contributing to a backlog in legal representation for those who need it the most, especially in rural portions of Wisconsin, like the 93rd Assembly District.That is why the budget will increase their pay from $40 an hour to $70 an hour to help encourage more attorneys to take these cases on.

Making additional investments in our correctional officers. Corrections is a very demanding and dangerous occupation. Currently, they are being asked to do more to help keep us safe at home. That is why the budget committee voted to increase pay for officers by 14%.

Expanding Community Corrections. The committee voted to provide additional resources for those who require intensive case management and mental health services when they are released. The Opening Avenues to Reentry Success program received additional funds to expand the number of counties served and to increase the number of people statewide that the program can help.

However, our work should continue outside of the budget process. That is why I co-sponsored legislation at the request of the Chief Judges of Wisconsin Circuit Courts to create 12 additional court branches throughout the state, including one in our area. This bill would help judicial capacity by adding more judges in the state and help reduce the prolonged delays people may have in getting their case heard.

Our ultimate goal is to keep our communities safe and these reforms are common sense steps forward that show that we can be tough on crime, but also smart in how we address it.

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