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Wisconsin looks at public defender reforms

The right to criminal defense is one of the basic concepts of common law, which formed the basis of the American justice system. Governments are obliged to provide all people accused of crimes with an attorney. Due to budgets and workloads, however, the best possible legal defense may not be guaranteed.

Public defenders in Wisconsin face many resource shortages, from time to basic supplies, simply due to their caseloads. The court-appointed defense attorneys in Racine County may average more than 400 cases in a year. Some groups also fare worse in the criminal justice system; Wisconsin residents of African descent are 12 times more likely to be jailed than their white neighbors.

"They see so much processing, so many overwhelming cases, that after a while they start to normalize the injustice," said a legal defense advocate of the people who work in the criminal justice system. "Not because they're bad people, but because culture shapes all of us."

One of the ideas fighting this trend is participatory defense, which allows nonlawyers caught up in criminal cases to understand court procedures, gather evidence and advocate for suspects. These activities help take some of the burden off of public defenders by replacing much of the work that large private legal teams could afford to conduct on their own or contract out.

It is often a good idea to consider appointing your own legal counsel if you are facing criminal charges. The expense may prove a value in terms of time and effort saved attempting to prove innocence, reduce charges or negotiate with prosecutors.

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