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Wetzsteon says her office overwhelmed with cases

Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon told supervisors at a 2021 budget hearing on Thursday that her office was a “support beam” in the local justice system, but, if a chronic staffing shortage continues to be ignored, the “whole structure will come down.”

The district attorney said her offi ce handles over 5,000 cases a year, but is six prosecutors short and, with staff overtasked, the county faces a “perfect storm” where mistakes and injustice can occur.

Wetzsteon, who raised the issue of office understaffing during last year’s budget deliberations, said a previous “sense of urgency” had heightened to a “sense of panic” because of Marsy’s Law, which will require greater effort from her office to protect victim’s rights, and plans to require county sheriff’s deputies to wear body cameras, which will increase the amount of evidence prosecutors will need to review.

The district attorney said trials, suspended because of COVID-19, will restart Dec. 4 and her office is slated to prosecute 15 homicide or attempted homicide cases.

Wetzsteon, who last year supported cutting the Start Right atrisk family program to pay for of- fice staff, did not name a place to find funding for extra positions, but she did note that an $118,000 Safe Streets Program will be funded this year without having been evaluated for outcomes.

Supervisor Brent Jacobson, Mosinee, an attorney, questioned whether changes in state law might mean an end to the county’s OWI court, saving $165,000 a year that could be spent on district attorney staff.

County administrator Lance Leonhard said that possibility has already been discussed with county judges. New state law imposes new minimum mandatory sentences for fifth and sixth OWI repeaters, the target group for OWI court.

Supervisor Chris Dickinson, Mosinee, said he supported finding a way to pay for additional staff in the district attorney’s office.

County board chairman Kurt Gibbs, town of Cassel, said he supported addressing the prosecutor shortage in the district attorney’s office as part of working out funding issues for the entire county justice system.

The chairman said administrator Leonhard had been tasked to take a “systems” approach to the county’s justice departments but that dealing with COVID- 19 took precedence this past year.

He promised work on justice systems issues going forward. “The whole thing needs to be studied,” he said.