In the run-up to the Aug. 12, 2014 primary election for state attorney general, Democrat Ismael Ozanne has stressed his experience as the Dane County district attorney and as a former deputy secretary of the state Department of Corrections.
On June 7, 2014, near the end of a speech he gave at the state Democratic Party convention, Ozanne said:
"And I’m running the second-largest county district attorney’s office. And I’ve talked to you about some of the innovations that we’re doing, some of the things that we’re doing to be proactive. But I’m doing that at 1985 staffing levels. So, you think about that. That’s leadership. That’s experience. I’m doing more with less in a county that’s grown 46 percent, where law enforcement’s grown 103 percent. We are moving forward."
It’s no surprise that the population of Dane County, home to Madison, has been growing and that court caseloads would be higher, as well.
So, is the DA’s office there still operating with the same number of staff it did nearly three decades ago?
In Wisconsin, the elected district attorneys and the prosecutors they hire primarily prosecute felony and misdemeanor crimes, as well juvenile cases, in circuit court. They were county employees until 1990, after a change in state law made them state employees. The change was made largely as a means of providing local property tax relief and reducing turnover in prosecutor positions, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
As a result, the vast majority of prosecutor positions in the district attorney offices is determined through the state budget process. Some county district attorney offices also get prosecutors via state- or federally funded grants, which come and go.
Concerns have been raised for years about the number of prosecutors. A state Legislative Audit Bureau analysis done in 2007 noted that the state employed 425 district attorney prosecutors but -- based on the number and types of cases prosecuted as analyzed by the State Prosecutors Office -- should employ 542.
That gap has grown, according to a more recent analysis. The State Prosecutors Office says there were still 425 district attorney prosecutors as of April 2014, but there should be 555.
As for Ozanne’s claim, he said he was referring to the prosecutor positions in his office.
To back the claim, his campaign initially cited a chart on the website of the Dane County district attorney's office, which lists the number of prosecutors annually back from 1985 through 2011.
Separately, we obtained a 1985 budget document from the county’s budget office.
Both indicate the Dane County DA’s office had 26 prosecutors in 1985.
The number remained in the high 20s to low 30s well into the 1990s before peaking at 34 in both 1999 and 2003, according to the chart. The low was 25 prosecutors in 2010.
The current number, however, is slightly higher than the 26 that there were in 1985.
The full-time-equivalent number of prosecutor positions for 2014 is 27.85, according to the State Prosecutors Office.
That is nearly two positions, or about 7 percent, more than Dane County’s 1985 total.
By comparison, Milwaukee County had 86 prosecutors in 1990 (the oldest complete data available) compared to 119.5 in 2014, according to the State Prosecutors Office.
But two other important factors bear on Ozanne’s claim.
1. The Dane County DA's office has used more state-paid special prosecutors than any other county in each year since 2012 (Ozanne became DA in August 2010), according to the State Prosecutors Office.
So far in 2014, it has used six special prosecutors, including two who are covering extended leaves; that would technically bump its total to 29.85 prosecutors for 2014, as indicated on information Ozanne’s campaign provided. The state incurs an additional cost to pay the special prosecutors, even though they are not a net addition to the prosecutorial staff.
2. Ozanne’s claim was general -- the level of staffing in his office, rather than specifically the number of prosecutors. We found there are currently 58 non-prosecutors in the DA’s office -- paralegals, investigators, secretaries and others -- which is 41 percent more than the 41 support staff in 1985.
Ozanne said: "I’m running the second-largest county district attorney’s office … at 1985 staffing levels."
The Dane County district attorney’s office has a full-time-equivalent of 27.85 prosecutors, just slightly more than the 26 in 1985, but it also regularly utilizes special prosecutors to fill temporary vacancies. And the office has 41 percent more support staff than it did in 1985.
We rate Ozanne’s statement Half True.