Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs

Of Wisconsin's 330 assistant district attorneys (ADAs), 246 left their jobs between 2001 and 2007. A 75 percent turnover rate presents challenges for any organization, but the implications are especially alarming for public safety when the employees are the prosecutors people whose work in county court make up a critical component of the state's overall criminal justice system.

The La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied ADA staffing, with special attention to turnover and the implications for public safety. The project, Public Safety and Assistant District Attorney Staffing in Wisconsin, was led by public management expert professor Dennis Dresang. The study start during the fall of 2010 and was completed during the summer of 2011.

Through a survey of current and former ADAs, the study's authors learned that the opportunity to serve the public is the major reason that individuals become county prosecutors. They also learned that the state's compensation system prompts these public servants to leave their jobs, usually within the first five years of service. 

The annual turnover rate for Wisconsin ADAs since 1990 is 15.6 percent. Since 2000 it is 17.2 percent, and since 2005 it is 18.4 percent. These rates contrast with an annual turnover rate for public employees that is usually 5 percent to 7 percent. In Milwaukee and Dane counties, which have the state's highest crime rates and the largest ADA staffs, almost one-half of the prosecutors have less than five years of experience.

A 1989 state law shifted responsibility for ADA compensation from counties to the state government. District attorneys in each of Wisconsin's 72 counties appoint and supervise their ADAs, but the state pays the ADAs based on statewide compensation criteria. About 330 ADAs prosecute throughout Wisconsin.

To lower ADA turnover in Wisconsin, the study recommends, the state should improve compensation by giving high performers merit increases, targeting ADAs with three to 10 years of experience, and accounting for the higher cost of living in Milwaukee and Dane counties.