John Anderson’s weeks blur together as the lone judge in Bayfield County. The largely rural county sits at the top of Wisconsin and is home to hundreds of miles of trails, some of the Apostle Islands, and 15,000 residents. But there are just 14 active attorneys.
In Anderson’s courtroom, one scenario unfolds over and over: Nonviolent drug offenders file into court without a lawyer, Anderson tells them to contact an attorney and then they are released on a signature bond. They’re due back in court in two weeks for another hearing, and possibly an offer for treatment if they’re able to find a lawyer.
But they often don’t last that long. The offender often ends up back in Anderson’s courtroom in a week on bail-jumping and more serious felony charges, with no representation. Now the opportunity for treatment is gone.
“That happens every week,” Anderson says. “Somebody is put back into the community with a serious drug or alcohol problem, waiting to get their lawyer, and then they reoffend.”
Like much of the state, Bayfield has faced serious, and worsening, problems with meth and opioid addiction, leading to many overdoses a year.
But unlike Wisconsin’s more affluent counties, Bayfield is also facing a shortage of lawyers to take up public defender cases, resulting in a backlog that lengthens delays for treatment and leaves people in jail awaiting trial.
Instead of people getting assigned a public defender within days of being arrested and charged, it can take four, six or even eight weeks. This gap in defense leaves people addicted to opioids or meth in a high-stress situation, without treatment options. If they do get assigned representation, it can be from an inexperienced attorney.
Other than the for-profit prisons, I mean.