The state would pay off law school loans — up to $20,000 a year — for lawyers who agree to represent poor defendants in rural counties, under a proposed bill.

Backers think the $500,000, two-year pilot program would offer enough incentive for new lawyers to move to Wisconsin’s small counties, or coax lawyers already practicing in those areas to start accepting the cases.

“Judges are making us very aware, this is an issue,” State Public Defender Kelli Thompson said. “It’s kind of all hands on deck.”

She said it sometimes has taken 100 phone calls to find a lawyer for an indigent defendant, and some of those lawyers are traveling three and four, sometimes up to five hours to see those clients.

“It’s a struggle,” Thompson said.

The loan repayment offer amounts to a small side-step around the real problem: Wisconsin’s lowest-in-the-nation payments to private attorneys who take on cases the State Public Defender Office can’t. 

That $40 an hour rate hasn’t risen since 1992, and experienced lawyers say it doesn’t even cover their overhead costs. As a result, many decline the cases or only take one or two a year out of a sense of professional duty. 

Repeated efforts by the State Bar of Wisconsin and the State Public Defenders Office to get the Supreme Court or the Legislature to raise the rate have repeatedly failed.

For a qualifying lawyer with tens of thousands of dollars in law school debt, the relief would effectively raise that $40, but the question is whether it would be enough to draw lawyers to places like Hurley, Rhinelander or Crandon.

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Daniel Berkos chairs the State Public Defender board and is the only lawyer in Juneau County who takes appointments. Most come from Madison, La Crosse or Baraboo, he said.

“People in their 20s and 30s generally aren’t interested in moving to rural areas,” he said. “We need to appoint lawyers already there.” 

But if they’ve long paid off their loans, they wouldn’t qualify for the new incentive.

Tyler Wickman runs a small general law practice in Ashland. He said when he started out, he took appointments, but now doesn’t take any because he’d lose money.

But he sees the problem created by lack of counsel.

“It creates a much a larger burden on…